Key drivers in embedded display design into the new decade...

Author : Paul Mullen | General Manager | Anders Electronics

02 March 2020

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UK-based Anders Electronics specialise in design & development of world-class display, embedded computing & touch control technologies for industry, and are dedicated to solving display engineering challenges & making electronic touchscreen technology safer, simpler & more enjoyable to use.

This viewpoint was originally featured in the March 2020 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. Sign up to receive your own copy each month.

Anders General Manager, Paul Mullen outlines what he believes will be the display & embedded technology innovations and industry drivers over the next five years and beyond. It’s about style and substance, with new shapes, sizes and contours to design with, and advanced energy-efficient & flexible technologies coming onto the market.

Today, there are numerous markets and opportunities for high tech electronic products, and their increasing intelligence can support sophisticated user interactions. A display is often the mainstay of the user interface, combined imaginatively with any combination of audio, touch, gesture control or haptics. The display also has a significant effect on the overall appearance and sales appeal, so it’s fortunate that designers now have plenty of options to get the effects they want. New sizes and shapes are emerging, there are crisp and cool new monochrome options, curved full-colour displays, and flexible displays are now commercially viable, too. Let’s take a closer look...

Monochrome

In the industrial world, monochrome technology is still highly desired for many reasons, not least because of its low power consumption, small footprint and low cost. An artfully designed user interface hosted on a monochrome display can be clear, simple, easy to understand, and can respond quickly to the user’s demands.

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Technical advancement of traditional technologies such as STN (super-twisted nematic) and its derivatives has improved aspects such as viewing angle, image quality and high-temperature performance, making these an excellent choice, particularly in the industrial and medical sectors.

On the other hand, newer vertical alignment (VA) displays, with their high contrast and deep black background, can offer added crispness. They can be used with a backlight of almost any colour to achieve a variety of effects, from sharp or clinical to warm and comforting.

Monochrome technology still has plenty of scope for development, and will remain a powerful option for designers, particularly for engagement with small and low-cost internet of things (IoT) devices. Monochrome is a cheap solution for this need, and it is simple to drive. We expect to see people redesigning their monochrome display to fit with the market demands for TFTs in smaller form factors as unit costs continue to reduce. You can now introduce a 2.4” or a 2.8” by 3.5” display for around $7 to $10, with or without integrated touch. By allowing rich interactive experiences at such low cost, this type of technology will move into a much wider arena than ever before.

AMOLED & PMOLED

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Active matrix organic light-emitting diodes (AMOLED) and passive-matrix OLED (PMOLED) have been around for some time, and we are now seeing significant growth in demand. We believe this growth will continue as designers engage more and more with this type of technology, particularly PMOLEDs. 

Its major strengths are that it is backlight-free and extremely thin, as well as flexible. It enables a neat and compact solution, ideal for applications like control panels for small home appliances. 

One market that looks particularly strong right now is for consumer home medical technology, where there is no rugged requirement and users simply need a small and clear display that they can interact with easily in their domestic environment.

Circular displays

The primary requirement is, of course, for the display to communicate information clearly, but designers now have a wealth of choices available to create products that simply look different and eyecatching, thereby gaining them competitive advantage, particularly in the consumer space. One of the trends we see really taking off is the use of circular displays, and it’s happening in a variety of markets, including industrial and automotive.

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Applications ranging from simple boiler controls to large clusters of dials are are adopting circular electronic displays to replace traditional mechanical dials for a more modern appearance and greater flexibility to display extra information. We are seeing a great deal of interest in ‘cluster panels’ for automotive applications, particularly motorbikes, and also in certain marine environments. An electronic display can replace a complete dashboard of mechanical dials, improving reliability and simplifying vehicle assembly, as well as achieving a modern appearance and stylishly presenting large quantities of information. We think this trend has a real long-term future. We’ve already seen circular displays come into consumable watches and other similar-sized devices, and we expect many other markets to make the same move.

We think there are important opportunities for new and stylish displays to take a prominent role in improving home-based care and security for the elderly – many products in the market are still based on the traditional alarm-type systems, which are clunky and old fashioned. The equipment requirements in the medical-at-home sector are not like those of really high-end medical, where a raft of medical-specific certifications are required, so there is more freedom to experiment with display technologies and styles, as well as features such as real-time health and safety monitoring, to help people live comfortably and securely in their own homes later into life.

Letterbox and cut-down displays

We are seeing greater demand for letterbox shaped displays, particularly within the automotive cluster environment.

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We think we will see this type of display permeate other applications, such as signage. It’s ideal for train information: overhead boards in individual railcars, for example, could give passengers much richer information than old-fashioned scrolling alphanumeric displays. 

As well as standard size letterbox displays, we’ve been supplying cutdown TFTs for six or seven years and were one of the first companies to promote taking a standard TFT 4.3” and cutting it down to 3.8”. We can now cut down various standard sizes, ranging from as small as 2.8” to 10.1”, to a customer-specified height and add touch control, FPCs and a backlight to their specification. All this at much lower NRE than a full custom display of a bespoke size.

Flexible displays

We think flexible displays are among the most exciting and practical developments in the industry right now – and have a very strong future. Feedback from events such as CES and Mobile World Congress suggest that while some companies are talking about it, they are reluctant to let people get up close or sample it. You can look, but you can’t touch – and that’s rather ironic. There were around five companies promoting flexible displays at MWC, including Samsung, Lenovo and Huawei, but the samples were kept tantalisingly locked away in glass display cabinets. However, their adoption into mainstream consumer products could happen in 2020.

Anders is engaged with a company called ‘Flex Enable’ and are witnessing some very exciting technology. If you can imagine the old Polaroid film that goes into the back of the camera, Flex Enable are now deploying displays with that kind of film-based property. Very thin, very flexible, but offering comparable visual performance to a TFT. From a deployment perspective, this is technology that we can see being mainstream for 2025 and beyond.

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In automotive, the flexible display will be the big movement from 2022 onwards, although it won’t reach our road cars until around 2027. These will be displays that will be able to replace the whole console. The user will be able to optimise areas for touch, like heating, audio or sat nav controls, but the console could be all one film. If you think of the whole walnut or plastic dash becoming a film-based display, this is where we believe automotive will go, specifically as there is going to be more and more cameras in cars as we move towards driverless cars or electric vehicles. Cameras will be deployed instead of wing mirrors, because the mirrors increase drag resistance and therefore, fuel consumption. If you want to optimise an electric car, you want to make it aerodynamic to use less fuel, so the design needs to be as slick as possible.

3D touch

The industry is buzzing about 3D touch, but the technology isn’t filtering through to deployment within displays yet. We think it’s likely to evolve more towards enhancing the overall product feature set, rather than being linked closely with only the display.

The biggest challenge is integrating the touch technology on-cell or in-cell – into the display stack itself – thereby removing the need for a separate touch sensor. It could be on top or embedded into the pixel. We think this is inevitably where touch is headed although, despite its many merits, it may not become mainstream. Interestingly, one of the key applications that I’ve seen for 3D touch is a non-display based application for controlling power tools, such as an electric drill. It replaces the mechanical power-on and power-off button with a sensor that the user can squeeze to adjust the speed. This is such an elegant application that we believe 3D touch may end up being less display oriented and instead extremely well suited to replacing mechanical switches.

And so, there you have it: tomorrow, today – from the people behind the screen. Perhaps in a year or two, you’ll be reading more predictions from Paul Mullen – only next time, you’ll be reading his words on a flexible display screen within your car. How cool would that be!?...


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