Is size everything?

Steve Montgomery reports on developments in the large display market. What is driving demand for plasma and LCD panels of 57” in size or more? And is there any limit to the sizes that vendors will build?

Plasma and LCD TFT panels have gradually grown in size over the past few years from small 14” laptop screens to 40” and 50” (diagonal) sizes, commonly used in advertising and information monitors and other public display applications, with a host of screen sizes in between which are generally used as domestic and commercial TVs and PC monitors. Mass production has resulted in substantial decreases in the retail cost of all these common sizes to the point now where they are almost seen as commodity items; indeed visit any council refuse site these days and you can be sure to see one or more in the screen recycle bins.

Screens of sizes larger than the 50” exist, but not in sufficient quantity to allow the price to fall in line with the smaller ones. Where as the price per square centimetre of LCD displays is roughly static at around €2300 per square metre of finished display for screen sizes between 24” and 46/47”, it then begins to rise steeply: €3500 per square metre at 50/52”, €4600 at 56/57” and €6325 at 65”. Clearly the laws of supply and demand are in effect, coupled with the cost of production and manufacturing yield of the producers.

Considering a large screen, then, as one above 57” where there is more likely to be a defined and pressing requirement for such a size, justifying its disproportionate cost; what are the defining factors that create the demand, where are they used, what are the manufacturers’ attitudes and where, if anywhere, do we expect the growth in surface area to stop?

The market for these large displays undoubtedly exists, as Darren Lewitt, Divisional Director for Midwich, Panasonic’s largest European distribution partner explains: “We offer a range of large screens up to 103” through our substantial distribution pipeline. The interest is certainly there; we have quotes out for over 130 Panasonic 103” plasma units alone. As ever the challenge is in convincing people that this is the right technology for them and then in converting the units and trying to avoid projects slipping. Samsung’s 82” display is generating interest in expectation of their usual high quality.”

In terms of application, these flat panels compete with projection systems and video wall or cube installations. Beating the former with brighter output and greater flexibility without having to allow for throw distances and shadowing on the screen and the latter by excluding the picture-interrupting bezels and complexity involved in image splitting and reassembly across several display elements. There is however a price to be paid in resolution: currently the largest practical image size for both display and processing in external equipment is Full HD, which is 1920 x 1080 pixels. At a screen size of 42” this equates to a pixel size in the region of 0.48mm, which is barely noticeable. At 108” this expands to 1.2mm, clearly visible close up but it is intended for large scale viewing making it more suited to large scale public viewing at a distance, at least until higher resolution displays and source technology become available. This, in turn, sets upper limits to the usable size of displays for general use; 150” displays will have pixels of around 1.75mm.

Several global screen manufacturers already have large plasma and LCD screens in their portfolios. Most have a series of sizes available to cater to every known requirement. And because there are only a handful of manufacturers in the world that manufacture the plasma and LCD glass panel itself, such as AUO, Samsung and Chi-Mei, the result is that displays cluster around standard, common sizes: 56/57”, 65”, 70” and so on. Samsung’s P-DID range includes 46”, 52”, 57”, 70” and 82”. Mark Sluis, Samsung’s Display Solutions Sales Manager explains the wide divergence: “We have a clear strategy to provide a range of Displays to cover all business solutions and applications whether they call for portrait or landscape displays and whatever the most appropriate size. Our roadmap is currently for sizes up to 82” and the introduction of multitouch infra red touch technology in this range opens up new corporate and educational markets. For example the 70” panel with interactive touch is an ideal alternative to projector based smartboards in classrooms.” At the moment though, the cost of the LCD monitor is beyond that of a smartboard, even if you consider lifetime costs of bulb replacement and setup, however as the cost of this size panel falls we can expect to see it in more of the lower cost educational applications. Its multipoint touch sensitivity allows instant interaction with the screen for on board drawing, without the need for special pens and continuous calibration found in smartboards. It is somewhat brighter too, making it more flexible in operation.

Similarly, Sony also limits its manufacture to a maximum size of 65”. Mike Fabian, Sony’s Manager of European Solutions Marketing employs these screens in complete applications: “In the dynamic signage sector, screens are often used in portrait orientation and we have made special engineering and design considerations to ensure heat dissipation and backlight performance is excellent regardless of the screen position. In general over 90% of our applications require screens between 32” and 52” so larger sizes are very much niche products.” Both LG and Hyundai do not manufacture the giant sizes, limiting theirs to 52” and 70” respectively, although both companies are keeping a watchful eye on the market and may introduce larger models up to 82”.

Currently the title of ‘world’s largest screen’ is with Sharp with its 108” LCD, narrowly beating Panasonic’s 103” plasma. In practice these are speciality products that are not encountered on a day to say basis, although they are being installed in prestige and/or novel locations. The Sharp screen comes in at a whopping £69000 per square metre. Thorsten Sondermeier, Sales Director of Lang AG handles both of these giant screens: “Currently we are supplying eight to ten of the largest monitors per month on average. The Sharp 108” LCD going into boardrooms and control centres and for use in digital signage, whilst the Panasonic 103” plasma is used in darker environments for video applications.”

NEC also has a clear strategy to develop larger sizes. Its latest product is an 82” LCD. Simon Jackson, Vice President of their Display Solutions Division: “We have recently introduced the 82” LCD and are continuing development of larger screens, so a display of 100” or larger is likely. The crucial point is to work closely with partners who can handle the special promotion, installation and support of large screens over 57” to 65” for which we have an approved partner programme.”

The question of where it is likely to end is open. At the moment there are two fundamental restrictions on manufacturing size as explained by John Anderson, European Technical Manager for Panasonic: “The first is that 103” plasma is simply the largest size we can build in our current factory. We are constructing a new one to will open in May, which will lead to sizes of 150””, and one suspects, beyond, if the market exists. He continues: “The second factor is power consumption. The 103” plasma has a requirement of 1.5KW. In order to address larger sizes, we have completely redesigned all aspects of design and operation from the ground up, including phosphor technology, drive circuits, video processing and electrode layout. So our new PDP technology offers the same brightness for half the power. Later generations will improve on this.”

Whilst it is uncertain exactly how large LCD and plasma screens are likely to go, it is evident that manufacturers are building, testing and marketing screens at an ever-increasing size, with a view to fulfilling demand now and in the future; that is, once they have proven the demand exists.

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