Bendable Phones May be on the Way from China’s Giants

The era of foldable and bendable screens is on its way. China’s first flexible screen production line began in Chengdu on October 26, breaking the monopoly of foreign companies. The line is expected to accelerate the evolution of Chinese mobile electronics into the new era of flexible screens.

The mass production line was designed, developed and built by domestic enterprise BOE. BOE has adopted the world’s most advanced evaporation technology and can produce 70 million flexible screens per year.

“What I am holding in my hand is a flexible screen, which may change our perception of what a screen is. It’s thinner than paper, and can be folded and bent. Perhaps we will see bendable phones as part of our daily life in the near future,” said Zhu Jihua, a reporter for CCTV.

Flexible screens bend because they do not require backlighting. Instead, they use self-luminating materials. The screen emits light as long as it has power, and its is more clear and bright than current LCD technology.

Chen Yanshun, CEO of BOE, said, “Flexible screens can be used in various fields such as mobile phones, PCs, automobiles and laptops. We expect the annual growth rate of this sector will be more than 30 percent in the next three to five years.”

Prior to BOE’s new manufacturing line, only one South Korean enterprise was able to produce flexible screens. The screens were notoriously difficult to obtain. The mass production line in China breaks South Korea’s monopoly and may greatly increase the global supply. Dozens of domestic mobile handset makers received the first batch of screens in a ceremony.

Why the Interest in Flexible Screens?

First of all: flexibility means this screen can be bent or folded.

As shown in the picture, such screen can be bent into an “S” shape, meaning it may be possible to use them in many wearable devices in the future.

Secondly, flexible screens are pretty! Flexible screens have a high pixel density and refresh rate. They also consume less battery while offering a higher brightness, offering colorful and clean images.

A spokesperson for BOE said the Chengdu 6th generation AMOLED production line uses the world’s best evaporation disposition technology. It cuts the glass substrate into two layers and uses evaporation to coat them. This is the first domestic AMOLED production line to employ such technology.

The line also uses low-temperature polysilicon (LTPS) plastic substrate instead of conventional amorphous silicon (a-Si) glass substrate. It uses flexible packaging technology to enable bending and folding of screens.

How Far Off are Foldable Phones?

Now that the foldable, bendable screen that is thinner than paper has been put into mass production, how far are we from foldable mobile phones?

Screens, circuit boards and batteries are the three key components in a mobile phone. They are also the key factors that decide whether a phone can be folded. A reporter visited one company making flexible circuit boards. The person in charge said domestic companies are not yet capable of manufacturing flexible circuit boards together with flexible screens. However, there are several prototypes, he said.

Li Xiaohua, president of Shangda Electronics, said, “The flexible circuit boards we are making are not flexible enough. They are a bit thick, so the density of the circuit in a unit area is relatively small. In the future, our production lines will manufacture circuits in micrometers: the current ones are measured in millimeters. Analogically, our current products are coarse clothes, but the future products will be soft and fine silk.”

Li said his factory was dedicated to manufacturing products to match flexible screens. This factory will enter production in 2019. Concerning mobile phone batteries, reporters visited several companies but never found any mature technology. It seems foldable mobile phones will not arrive in the near future. However, reporters found several mobile phone producers working on a compromise.

“I think a foldable mobile phones will appear very soon. The flexible screen technology is mature now, and double-folded mobile phones would allow space for battery and circuit board. However, in terms of drawing and extension, or other products, it will require many technology iterations and upgrades,” said Ma Xiaohang, deputy general manager of Hisense Communication.

Ma said that process may take four to five years. After that, we may expect to see ground-breaking mobile phones enter the market.

This article originally appeared in CCTV Finance and was translated by Pandaily.