After Decade of Development, Cymer Moves Into OLED Display Manufacturing

When San Diego-based Cymer (NASDAQ: CYMI) announced its first-quarter financial results last month, the company noted almost parenthetically that it’s just beginning to roll out technology to manufacture OLED display screens.

In the 24 years since it was founded, Cymer’s business has been focused almost entirely on making advanced lasers that serve as the light sources in the photolithography process used in semiconductor manufacturing. The ability of Intel, AMD, and other semiconductor makers to produce chips with smaller and smaller microcircuit designs is due in part to Cymer’s ability to make lasers that produce light at ever-tighter wavelengths. The company now has about 3,300 lasers operating in semiconductor plants around the world; its most advanced lasers, which cost about $1.7 million apiece, are sold to ASML, Canon, and Nikon for integration into scanners—the big machines used to put microcircuits on silicon wafers.

Cymer logoCymer’s success in keeping pace with chipmakers has given the company a commanding global market share, and Cymer spokesman Blake Miller says Japan’s Gigaphoton is its only remaining competitor. As a semiconductor tool supplier, however, Cymer has faced an extraordinarily volatile market. In the winter of 2008-09, for example, Cymer laid off at least a third of its worldwide workforce as the recession deepened. Cymer has long needed another business to dampen the vicious swings of its core semiconductor business.

So it was noteworthy, to say the least, when Cymer said its TCZ display division has installed its first system for making ultrathin OLED displays at the facilities of an unnamed customer in South Korea. While the first system undergoes integration and testing, Cymer says it plans to deliver its second OLED manufacturing system to another unnamed customer in China by the end of October.

OLED technology itself has been 20 years in the making, according to David Knowles, a 12-year Cymer veteran who now heads the company’s TCZ division.

Knowles says one of the key innovations underlying TCZ’s OLED technology is a process that creates a uniform grid of transistors on the semiconducting material that forms a thin-film base layer on a screen’s backplane, or control layer. Each transistor in the grid controls a light-emitting diode (LED), and each LED illuminates a single pixel. Another key innovation involves depositing one of three proprietary organic compounds precisely atop each LED to make a red, green, or blue pixel.

Knowles says OLED technology requires less material, and has fewer parts than are needed to make an LCD display screen, which typically uses a gel-like layer of liquid crystal in front of a light source (a backlight). As light passes through, the liquid crystals are electronically modulated to produce images. OLED screens are “more expensive to fabricate today,” Knowles says, but he predicts that costs will come down as manufacturers gain experience and OLED volumes increase.

Knowles tells me that TCZ grew out of a new business development activity that began at Cymer about 10 years ago. Cymer moved from R&D to form a joint venture in 2005 with a German optics business called Carl Zeiss that was focused on commercializing its new approach to OLED manufacturing. The innovation proved to be successful enough that Cymer decided in January to acquire the 40 percent stake that Zeiss held in the joint venture, so that TCZ (which stems from “Team Cymer Zeiss”) is now a wholly owned division of Cymer.

So what’s the innovation?

One of the trickiest steps in the OLED manufacturing process is melting the 50-nanometer layer of silicon semiconductor used in the backplane to form a poly-crystalline semiconductor that bonds to the glass—without melting the glass itself. By working with Zeiss, Knowles says Cymer developed a technique for using a 600-watt, deep-ultraviolet laser to melt the silicon semiconductor layer. The method, which operates a high-power, Xenon-Fluoride laser much like a line scanner, generates temperatures of 2,732 degrees Fahrenheit (1,500 degrees Celsius) on the thin-film surface, yet the temperature of the glass underneath never rises more than 10 degrees.

“I tell my kids it’s like melting the peanut butter on your sandwich without toasting the bread,” Knowles says. Much of the cost of OLED manufacturing involves the semiconductor layer, and Knowles estimates that TCZ’s innovation will lower the cost of making the poly-crystalline layer by 30 percent to 50 percent.

With its TCZ business, Cymer also has taken a different approach to the OLED industry. Instead of supplying its lasers to a toolmaker like Canon or ASML, Knowles says TCZ plans to make the OLED manufacturing tools itself in Asia. He estimates that TCZ will sell the tools at a range of $7 million to $12 million per system. The market research firm DisplaySearch estimates the global market for OLED display technology will soar from over $1 billion this year to more than $6 billion in 2016.

Projected market for OLEDs

Projected market for OLEDs

The technology can be used to make display screens across the entire range of electronic devices, from mobile phones, GPS navigation devices, and digital camera display screens to netbooks, notebooks, DVD players, and beyond. As Knowles puts it, “The piece we like about OLED is that it runs the gamut, from cell phones to TVs.”

Cymer has not identified its Korean customer, but it’s likely that TCZ has been working closely with Samsung Mobile Display, which is the world’s largest OLED manufacturer and has unveiled OLED displays for cell phones, TVs, and laptops in recent years. If all goes as planned, Knowles says consumers could see the first OLED displays made with TCZ tools in time for Christmas.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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