The outlook for flexible glass has changed dramatically since NanoMarkets last issued a report on flexible glass in December 2012. At the time of that report, flexible glass looked poised for commercial success in the display market – Corning had just seriously launched Willow Glass, other glass suppliers were producing ever thinner glass, and rumors were rampant about bendable or curved displays coming from major OEMs. These displays were supposedly going to feature flexible cover glass.
Flexible glass seemed to be a natural fit for the mobile display market, and NanoMarkets and many others assumed that the first significant revenues for flexible glass would come from the table and mobile phone manufacturers. It looked in 2012 as though 2013 would be the year when that prediction would come to fruition. Obviously, that did not happen, even though the selling points for flexible glass – lighter weight and potentially low cost compared to rigid glass – look on the surface to be exactly what the mobile communications and computing sector needs as smart phones get bigger and tablets become more prevalent.
Samsung and LG did indeed introduce smart phones with new form factors in 2013, but they were not flexible and were encased in plastic rather than glass. Clearly the OEMs have decided, at least for the short term, that other solutions better meet their needs. The decision to use plastic rather than glass put a huge dent in the flexible glass market, one from which it will be difficult to recover.
Some of the compelling reasons for using flexible glass, such as lighter weight and thinner form factor, are still valid. Glass is thermally stable and has excellent barrier performance, which make it of interest for OLED and PV applications. But difficulties in handling, whether in sheets or rolls, may be its downfall if flexible glass manufacturers cannot quickly improve its durability during processing and use. Glass is fragile, something that flexible glass manufacturers were downplaying in efforts to demonstrate its flexibility. It will often require additional coatings (polymer or ceramic) to impart durability and strength, potentially even beyond those already found on many electronic glass products.
The proposition that flexible glass is lower cost than other materials is a hard thing to sell right now. Yes, it uses less material than thicker glass and therefore reduces the BOM (potentially!), but that is not sufficient. The need for protective coatings adds cost and complexity to the product. In theory, roll-to-roll (R2R) processing of wide rolls of glass should provide reduced manufacturing cost and help the display industry scale to larger substrates, but it requires a significant capital investment that the display industry and others are not motivated to make.
Flexible glass manufacturers are, of course, quite aware that the display industry has not embraced their materials, perhaps, and are pursuing other applications that in some cases are very different from displays. They are casting a wide net with the hope that they will bring in some customers. These customers could come from industries that we covered in our 2012 report and also some that we did not foresee at the time. (In fairness to us, apparently the flexible glass sector didn’t foresee them either.) But it is also possible that commercial applications will not materialize. Flexible glass has not lived up to its expectations and is now in the position of being a product searching for a market.