Arthur H. Firester
If Japanese technology is to be assessed and understood, it must be viewed within the perspective of the business environment and investments that drive the technology and the technology's maturity.
Although research into active matrix technology began in Japan in the early 1980s, it is only within the last several years that there have been significant investments in early production capabilities. The costs of R&D, although substantial, are quite small compared with the investments that will be necessary for real production. R&D leads to basic understanding and, from a commercial perspective, to the development and ownership of seminal concepts and patents that can provide competitive advantage (even to the extent of excluding competition) and future licensing incomes. Since the investments are relatively low, R&D can be extended in time at little cost. Similarly, pilot production development, although an order of magnitude more costly, does not impose major time pressures on the business enterprise. Here, too, the business intent is to establish intellectual property and to develop the requisite data and confidence to take the next expansionary step. The next step, production investment, is 100 times costlier. Significant resources are committed to building production-scale facilities and staffing them with engineers, technicians, and production workers. Now there is tremendous pressure to develop marketable products to provide a return on these large investments. Each additional month without marketable production brings further negative cash flow. Each early month with marketable production provides competitive advantage in cost reductions through cumulative production learning curves.
This is the stage the Japanese are in now. At least 10 companies have made major investments. The markets are ready to absorb all of these production capacities if they can meet their yield and cost goals. In the highly competitive Japanese environment, the belief is that there will be only five significant production leaders and five secondary production followers. None of the companies wants to be in the second tier. It is this environment that sets the stage for the technology drive and development and, accordingly, for this chapter of our technology report.
In this chapter we will first provide a basic introduction to the active matrix technology; examine in more specific detail the investment and production environment; review the status of major active matrix technologies, with particular emphasis on the dominant one, amorphous silicon; discuss recent advances in these technologies and the growing R&D interest in polysilicon active matrix technologies; and, finally, review recent commercial products and prototypes.