September 10, 1996

Article at The Age

TECHNOLOGY | Hang that TV, it’s gone flat

Here today, gone tomorrow: a bank of cathode ray tube TVs


‘THE flat panel display will be an indispensable component in the 21st century,” says Hajime Sasaki, executive vice-president of the world’s second-largest semiconductor maker, NEC Corporation of Japan.

At least that’s what Sasaki hopes: his company has bet its future on flat panel displays. Not just the high-quality color liquid crystal display (LCD) screens you see on the latest laptops, but PDPs - plasma display panels with better picture quality than your old cathode ray tube (CRT) TV - and flat enough to hang on the wall like a painting.

And a big painting at that: NEC is already gearing up to build 60-inch plasma screens in the next few years. 

The chip maker, a $43 billion-a-year concern, has targeted flat panels as an essential technology of the first decade of the next century. They are betting on multimedia applications driving consumer electronics, and pervading every sphere of society: from writing music and editing film to activities such as home shopping, tele-medicine and Internet-mediated virtual education.

“We envisage an advanced information society in which multimedia information instantaneously becomes available at hand, regardless of place,” he said in an interview with Computer Age.

“NEC has three key devices for the future electronics market, and they are targeted at multimedia,” he said. And flat screens were going to be a big part of that future.

“Flat screens are very important - it gives multimedia functionality. We (also) need processor memory, interface circuitry for the audio/video interface between the equipment and human beings. And the third is batteries; they’re very important,” he said.

Sasaki, who was in Australia last week as a keynote speaker at the 14th World Computer Congress in Canberra, said despite the high color capability and resolution offered by plasma screens, they would not usurp the liquid crystal displays.

“Generally speaking, LCD has a future. It is low-power and lightweight. But there may be an upper limit in screen size, say around 20 inches,” he said.

But Sasaki, an electrical engineer who has been with NEC since 1961, said that plasma screens - barely thicker than your average keyboard - are likely to be in most homes by 2010.

“Between 20-inch and 30-inch will be the battleground between LCD, CRT and PDP,” he said. “Except in portable application, CRT could dominate for a while. It is not easy for PDPs to compete with CRTs in the 20 to 30-inch market. But the cost of CRTs increase rapidly above 30 inches. Above 30 inches, I expect plasma screens to dominate.”

The company has already started small volume production of 33-inch PDPs in Japan, where a factory is turning out about 5000 panels a month. NEC expects the screens to be monitors for business. Next year, a new plant will start producing 10,000 screens a month of the 42-inch variety for wall-hung TVs.

Although plasma displays are cheaper to produce than LCDs, they consume a lot of energy, and that will probably hold them back from the widest possible applications.

“With plasma, it’s necessary to have a high-voltage power supply. But it is still energy saving, in comparison with CRTs. As for portability, batteries remain a problem. You need 200 to 300 volts, so it’s not easy to step up from a 3-volt battery,” he said.

Although the company is spending heavily on lithium-ion batteries - which weigh less, last longer and are less environmentally toxic to dispose of compared with nickel-cadmium - no-one expects a quantum leap in performance soon. At least not without a major technological breakthrough, or the emergence of new battery technology. Without that, plasma screens for the laptop will take a while to arrive.

“That’s for the 22nd century,” Sasaki said.

However, there seems as yet no limit to the size of plasma screens. “The only limit is the size of the ‘motherglass’.

We can go up to 60-inch now. Generally speaking, they are not so difficult to make,” Sasaki said.

Sasaki, who until his recent promotion headed the company’s semiconductor business (which he helped establish), said that another essential technology for the next “decade of multimedia” will be high-throughput computer chips like DRAMs, or dynamic random access memory.

While NEC and its competitors know the multimedia explosion will need DRAMs, and that DRAMs are the future, there are so many new players trying to make a buck in the game that a serious glut hit the market earlier this year.

DRAM chip manufacturers around the world scaled back production, particularly Taiwanese companies and Korean giants such as Samsung and Hyundai, which had invested heavily in DRAMs and were caught short by the price tumble. “We are facing a serious price erosion,” said Sasaki in his measured English.

“Prices are around one-quarter what they were one year ago. So right now our strategy is very complicated. In the case of NEC, DRAMs represent one-third (of the business): we have microcomputers and application- specific ICs (integrated circuits) - we have many product lines. Even though DRAM prices have fallen down, volume is still increasing. We see 70 per cent growth in volume at the moment.”

Sasaki said NEC had expected DRAM prices to fall to existing levels, but not until mid-1997. Asked if he thought prices would fall much further, he said: “No, I don’t think so, because it’s now very close to the manufacturing cost. There’s no more room for price reductions.”