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A Cautionary Tale: The Flat Panel Display Initiative

Photonics Spectra
Apr 2002
Brent D. Johnson

The war on terrorism has spawned renewed interest in photonic sensor technology for detecting everything from stray nuclear weapons to smallpox. As companies weigh patriotism against profit, they should be aware that the government trough is neither as full nor as secure as many would like to believe.

For some, the lure of military contracts is akin to the legend of El Dorado, the fabled lost city of gold. Tales of the $600 toilet seat and $900 hammer have given birth to the mythology of a military accounting system that would make an Enron executive cringe. However, companies need to understand that there is not much crossover between military and commercial markets. The same $400 coffeepot that was installed on the C-130 is not going to make it to the shelves of Target or Wal-Mart.

Henry J. Girolamo, program manager and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency agent for the US Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., has worked on miniature displays as a component of body armor to enable soldiers to see around corners without exposing themselves to fire. In a panel discussion that considered the successes and failures of the agency's Flat Panel Display Initiative, Girolamo noted that it is difficult for a company to make a profitable product using soldier-proofing technology. It is expensive to make something sand-, fungus- and waterproof, and there is no assurance that there will be a market for the product outside of its military application.

"The primary problem," said Chris King of Planar Systems Inc. in Beaverton, Ore., "is that there is a large Asian display market in place that has billions of dollars invested in the technology." Even though the military had defined the displays as a "critical technology" that must be built in the US, they couldn't afford not to go overseas. The Asian market has brought the cost down to a level where no one in the US could possibly compete. The business volume was simply not large enough to support the manufacturing infrastructure.

King said that one of the reasons his company is successful is that the same process used in making the electroluminescent panels for the $100 million commercial market could be used to build the 1000 to 2000 displays per year that the military requires for armored vehicles. The size of the military market alone could not support the company's electroluminescent panel business.

A speaker at the SPIE Micromachining and Microfabrication Symposium in San Francisco in October said that the military will not have the production volume to drive down the cost of micro-optoelectromechanical systems materials either, but would happily exploit any technology developed by any company that is willing to try.

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