ITO and its alternatives: major decisions loom large

Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh
ITO and its alternatives: major decisions loom large
These coming quarters are crucial decision times for many transparent conductive film (TCF) companies. Some are losing patience with their programmes, questioning if and when their efforts will turn into notable revenues. Others must decide whether their technology is right for emerging larger area and lower resistance applications, and if and when they should make an investment into larger processing facilities. And finally, some are wondering if the market will finally turn a page, enabling them to arrest or exit the current strategy of constantly using price falls as their only real lever to stay relevant.
Our comprehensive report, Transparent Conductive Films (TCF) 2017-2027: Forecasts, Markets, Technologies, provides answers. Here, we offer the most comprehensive and global coverage of TCF technologies, assessing, in detail, silver nanowires, various types of metal mesh including photo-patterned, directly printed and hybrid, PEDOT, graphene, micro wire, carbon nanotubes, and others. We also provide an analysis of existing and emerging applications, offering segmented ten-year market forecast. Our report also includes profiles and updates on companies from across the world.
Statue quo serves no one well
The market is at an interesting juncture. ITO (indium tin oxide) has managed to stay highly relevant as the dominant incumbent, thanks to its low cost. This is despite it not being the best technology, at least on paper. The alternatives have however also now matured as a technology, with some technologies and suppliers even securing a growing foothold in the market.
The status quo however is not sufficient for sustaining all TCF technologies and suppliers. The power still firmly resides with the buyers and price competition reigns supreme amongst suppliers. The TCF technology, for current applications, is highly commoditized. This shows no sign of changing for current applications unless supply is unexpectedly interrupted.
The major question now is whether the market composition will finally change, creating substantial new demand and allowing companies to differentiate also based on performance. In this article we discuss the transition to larger area and lower sheet resistance applications, leaving the discussion of high flexibility to a follow-on article.
Markets beyond consumer electronics emerge
A long-standing trend in the TCF business has been the increasing application area. In general, this implies two needs: (1) the ability to process large area films and (2) the ability to offer lower sheet resistance to maintain performance levels.
Indeed, a few years ago, the market was very excited as it got a whiff of a transition beyond tablet-sized touch screens. This market however proved slow to develop, undershooting even the more conservative estimates. This was partly because the value chain was not quite ready.
This may however be about to change. Pro-cap touch sensing is slowly gaining market share even in larger displays. This trend is expected to accelerate as large touch screens become more popular in cars.
Indeed, many are now focusing on the automotive sector as a major addressable market. The need here is to consistently supply reliable, low-resistance, curved and large area sheets. It is also to address needs in transparent heating as a replacement for printed demisters. In fact, ITO alternatives such as silver nanowires have already established a market here, first for side mirrors and next for bigger windows. Low sheet resistance and high transparency are critical here.
Furthermore, pro-cap is also coming to tables, ultra-large interactive displays, whiteboards, and so on. These applications cannot be served by ITO whilst optical means have their own limitations. The current technologies based on microwires do work, but mostly in their niches such as outdoor advertising. This market will also grow, opening up yet another opportunity outside standard consumer electronics like mobiles, tablets, and laptops.
Developments on many fronts like OLED lighting and OPVs will remain muted, in the short term. This is because these technologies largely remain over-priced and underperforming. That is, however, not to say that there is no progress: production capacity for OLED lighting is expanding, transitioning to Gen-5 in the hope of supplying high-differentiated and premium-priced exterior automotive lights. The supply chain for OPVs is also active with both OPV printers and evaporators planning a transition towards wider webs. At these points, TCF suppliers- particularly those offering low-resistance and flexibility - will need to engage with module makers now to get embedded in the final designs, but large sales volume will still have to wait.
IME, or in-mould electronics, is also an active development. Here, transparent conductive materials with other functional and graphical inks are coated on a 2D plastic sheet before being formed into a 3D object. This way, the electronics will be structurally embedded, creating novel designs and saving space. This approach requires TCF technologies that can survive a significant stretching event as the film goes from 2D to 3D. This technology has been demonstrated at the prototype level by multiple firms, and is now in late-stage qualification period for both home appliance and automotive sectors. This too is another front to closely monitor.
There are many other interesting applications around. Film-based smart windows are being produced requiring large-area flexible TCF technologies. Here, depending on the required response time, the conductivity level requirements may be relaxed, opening the door for the likes of PEDOT. Transparent antennas are another application frontiers. These are already commercial using metal mesh but there is much further room to grow.
Our report Transparent Conductive Films (TCF) 2017-2027: Forecasts, Markets, Technologies covers existing and emerging markets. It also provides ten-year segmented market forecasts.
To invest or not to invest
The rise of these new markets presents risky choices to ITO alternative suppliers and users. Many metal mesh companies succeeded in staying cost competitive by using legacy photopatterning equipment that was already largely depreciated. They now must decide whether they can replicate their success if they invest in new large format photo-patterning equipment. Some in Asia have already invested and commissioned facilities to exclusively focus on large area films, yet others are hesitantly sitting on the fence.
Hybrid metal mesh producers (e.g., emboss plus print or fill, or print then photo-pattern) are faced with similar questions since most current machines serve markets only up to the tablet size. Should they take a plunge and prepare to manufacture large-format low-resistance metal mesh films or should they stay put?
Metal mesh printers have come a long way, demonstrating that direct printing can produce sufficiently narrow linewidths. The work thus far however has been limited to narrow format films printed at low speeds. Therefore, whilst in theory printing lends itself well to large area production, in practise the technology still has a long way to go to demonstrate commercial viability at larger areas. Progress however has gathered unpreceded momentum - therefore we suggest that you watch this space.
Solution coated technologies like silver nanowires, carbon nanotubes and PEDOT also, in theory, lend themselves well to wide width webs. They are however also not challenge free. For example, for silver nanowire, the coating challenge is whether large area films can achieve low haze and high smoothness. Furthermore, for many applications, the large area coated films may then need to be patterned. This too will require a commitment to form a stronger ecosystem.
To learn more about the dynamics of the TCF industry consult our comprehensive report Transparent Conductive Films (TCF) 2017-2027: Forecasts, Markets, Technologies. This report is the fruit of many years of global research. It provides detailed technology assessments, updates on companies from across the world, and segmented ten-year market forecasts covering existing and emerging applications.