In Dresden, late 2009, one OLAE firm got into trouble and another one moved to South Korea. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote this up and called for action.Footnote 11 The ensuing debate was taken up in other European countries and broadened to discussion about the competitive position of Europe in high-tech areas. The European Commissioner for Trade, who had wanted anyway to take an initiative towards wealth creation as a response to the economic crisis, but also shaped by the wish to revive manufacturing, as well as to build on earlier investments of the EC, saw the debate as an opportunity to do something, starting with the establishment of a High-Level Expert Group (consisting of academic, policy, and industrial actors).Footnote 12
The report argued that Europe has a frontrunner position in the field of OLAE compared to other regions (USA and Asia) that was created through the R&D investments in this field.Footnote 13 It was highlighted that Asian companies were leveraging existing standard manufacturing (linear evaporating line); this was indicated by the announcement of a Japanese venture (Lumiotec) to start a pilot manufacturing site to develop OLED lighting which are flat and thin but rigid.Footnote 14 The conclusion was that moving towards a stronger involvement in large area production potentially with organic electronics is an opportunity for Europe.Footnote 15 But also a strong diagnosis: lack of user involvement and working on unproven manufacturing technologies would make investments from industry difficult in the OLAE field.Footnote 16 Without continuity in dedicated funding to stimulate developments in manufacturing, investments made under the sixth and seventh framework projects might not lead to wealth creation in Europe. If not remedied, that would cause the European position in the mid-term to be weakened and eventually to lose its frontrunner position to the USA and Asia.Footnote 17 Organic photovoltaics and flexible OLED lighting were identified as promising options for the EC initiative.Footnote 18
The Expert Group created focused working groups to assess emerging technologies with added value for the European economies. OLAE was one such field, seen as enabling new approaches towards ambient intelligence with novel approaches to make efficient lighting, displays, and low-cost electronics.Footnote 19 Branch associations had already taken initiatives to make the promise of this area visible by specifying a broad range of possible applications and components that made use of various materials like organic, inorganic, or hybrid materials and fabricated via large-area mass manufacturing processes.Footnote 20 Such open-ended promises about next generation information technologies, energy, health care, and entertainment solutions, and social benefits could now be linked to the general aims of the EU initiatives. The team of experts in this working group produced a first white paper, presenting a strategic assessment of opportunities and threats for Europe.Footnote 21
The report did not create a big stir, but reinforced the positive atmosphere around OLAE, in which possibilities were explored, European regions put the technology on their agenda, and an occasional imaginative venture capitalist supported a small and medium enterprises (SME) branching out into this area.Footnote 22 The focus on lighting as an important area of application was supported by the new EU regulation to phase out traditional light bulbs.Footnote 23
The advice of the High-Level Expert Group, including a priority for OLAE, for lighting was included when the EC announced a Joint Technology Initiative (JTI) on “the factories of the future” later in 2010. Manufacturing was the key challenge, and the first step was a consultation process. European Technology Platforms (e.g., Photonics21, European Nanoelectronics Initiative, Clean Environment Technologies, etc.) were included in identifying promising areas of high value which deserved strengthening beyond the framework programs.Footnote 24 Incumbent industrial players in lighting said that flexible lighting foils were a promising route. They argued that organic photovoltaics lagged behind in development, particularly with respect to encapsulation. Leveraging advantages of (roll-to-roll) manufacturing would eventually enable cheap OLED lighting applications to compete in the general lighting application market and thus lead to wealth creation.Footnote 25 Issues were identified by various parties. The spokesperson of a coordinated EU Framework project emphasized the promise: “We demonstrated high quality lamination foil for flexible lighting and the opportunity that these technology platforms can be used in other low-cost electronic devices as well. Leveraging on these findings is of key strategic importance for future product development trajectories in Europe.”Footnote 26 The CTO of a large material developer focusing on OLED lighting materials said: “The OLED market will have two parts, displays and lighting. Asian companies dominate the display industry and there is little hope for Europe to get this back. For OLED lighting it is different, because lighting production still exists in Europe with large players like Philips and Osram. This is an emerging market with lots of opportunities especially because of the tendency of large lighting companies to direct their investments and resources into OLEDs for lighting.”Footnote 27 There were also sounds of caution as in the speech of the chair of the Energy and Sustainability Committee of the European Association for Lighting Designers: “Inflated claims about performances of LEDs in the past created skepticism in the designers’ community making them cautious in recommending LED luminaries. OLED manufacturers should avoid hype about product performances and bring well tested products to the market.”Footnote 28
The net effect was that the promises for lighting applications were accepted by the EC and support was forthcoming for an alliance with big incumbents which would focus on roll-to-roll manufacturing of lighting foils.Footnote 29 Earlier experience with promises which were not realized prompted the EC add a monitoring scheme, with a requirement for at least some short-term results. Now, there was further justification, emphasized in the presentation of the draft proposal in Brussels, that the difficult economic conditions in Europe required investments in R&D to make significant societal and economic contributions within a few years.Footnote 30 Not everyone was happy with this requirement. As a spokesperson for an R&D company said: “these requirements bureaucratize the process, which make the whole funding procedure inefficient.” Eventually, participants were willing to accept this requirement as a temporary instrument. The funding support from EC and credibility of efforts that came with it allowed uncertainties of developing new unproven manufacturing capabilities for lighting to be reduced and standardization of manufacturing lines be improved. These advantages were widely recognized.Footnote 31
The representative of Professional Lightings Design Association (PLDA) was quoted in a news article explaining that their engagement would open up the opportunity to make an actual difference in the new developments within the lighting industry, instead of coming in at a late stage: “Our engagement opens up the opportunity to identify and engage users in early stage. We will also collaborate in measurement activities to provide reassurance to the designer’s community about different performance promises. This will prevent past mistakes made with LED luminaries.”
When the JTI was eventually launched, early in 2011, an interesting further move became visible. A spokesperson of a lighting company proposed (but after careful preparation and consultation) to include design associations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the initiative, as a strategy to show that it was more than following promises: “Our activities shouldn’t only focus on solving technical issues, we also need to consider requirements of end-users.” He had been able to convince the PLDA and Friends of the Earth, an NGO focused on technology and environmental issues, to engage in the JTI. Good feelings were voiced, and concerted work started immediately.Footnote 32
The OLAE landscape in Europe now became dominated by the challenge of OLED-based lighting applications.Footnote 33 There are three strands in the story: the JTI and its fate, responses to the European initiative, and other OLAE activities going on as well.
The strong support in Europe for a collaborative approach focusing on flexible OLED lighting applications implied a competitive challenge to which the Japanese company Lumiotec had to respond. Kido, the scientific director, recognized the advantages that roll-to-roll manufacturing might have in lighting applications, but announced a pragmatic strategy at the annual international technology expo in Japan, “We have been able to solve issues with production and performance in the past two years in our pilot setting and our partners are convinced we can have the first mover advantage, so we are planning to scale up production in 2012.” They would increase their efforts to enter the lighting market.Footnote 34
Other application areas of OLAE were pursued mainly by SME’s and start-ups from research institutes or multinational electronic companies. Especially in Germany, support from Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF) made further work possible on printed RFIDs and organic printed photovoltaics.Footnote 35 Printed RFIDs and organic printed photovoltaics were being tested in pilot settings, and e-readers were further developed and first flexible e-readers of Plastic Logic were explored in niches.Footnote 36
By 2012, while developments in flexible lighting continued at a pace, the hopes of Plastic Logic were confronted with disappointing uptake of their e-reader. Traditional publishers were not adapting, and debates on intellectual property rights spilled over in this domain. The need to have severe restriction on piracy had caused different platforms to emerge that were not compatible. The e-reader industry was struggling.Footnote 37
A lateral effect was that E-Ink, the main technology supplier, devised strategies to stimulate expansion of use of its technology to other application areas. A breakthrough in the developments of thin film batteries had made it possible to integrate the displays in magazine covers. In a technology expo organized in Dresden, Germany, E-Ink’s CEO announced contracts with various magazine publishers. Its CEO said “Our unique technology will change the future of publishing and opens a new chapter to advertising.” Esquire magazine had been the first to try the technology a few years earlier and was explicitly mentioned to be the first contractor.Footnote 38
The intended announcement effect, to mobilize for wide deployment of E-Ink displays in magazines, had an unintended effect when it incited negative reactions from environmental groups which argued that the new applications E-Ink aimed for meant an increase of environmental burden. Greenpeace started an electronic campaign under the slogan “Esquire magazine, the Darth Vader of electronic reading,” saying that the publishing industry should put their thinking cap on. There were mixed reactions in the sustainability community. As a result, magazines across Europe felt they had to publicly announce they would refrain from using the electronic magazine cover option.Footnote 39
Two years after the start of the JTI, the first reporting round in 2013 showed efforts at technology development, but also reflected a concern, emphasized by PLDA representatives. According to industrial standard tests, the performance of lighting products produced in the pilot line appeared to be lower than required for general lighting applications. It appeared that much more R&D by material developers was needed on solution processable polymer OLED materials to optimize the performances required for general lighting applications.Footnote 40 In addition, the costs now incurred in material development and production would lead to prices unfavorable to the competitive position of OLEDs against other lighting applications in the market. The strategic review recognized that products for lighting design applications and signage applications for advertising would still be feasible before the project ended.Footnote 41
Thus, in contrast to the original high hopes, the products developed might well remain limited to niche applications where the flexibility of the application was seen as a key advantage and lower performances were acceptable. There were already examples. Through PLDA, contacts were made with the design team of the German automobile manufacturer Daimler and airplane manufacturer Airbus. Daimler had announced to use flexible lighting in the dashboards of its new S-class Mercedes. Concurrently also, Airbus announced that the flexibility of lights was seen as a key advantage to be used in airplane lighting designs and ordered the lights for the A380. Other design applications for indoor lighting were also being pursued by specialty lighting design companies.Footnote 42
Independently, Friends of the Earth reacted skeptically to the course of developments with the sudden shift towards design lighting applications. Ruth Walther from Friends of the Earth Germany queried how the overall energy efficiency promise of the JTI could be realized if it only remained a design lighting application to be used besides other applications or as advertising signage application which would only encourage more energy usage. She was quoted criticizing the earlier choices made by EC to invest in lighting applications: “the promise of wealth creation that was embraced for lighting applications had blinded people to see other developments that were occurring and which might score better on sustainability.” The reference was, in particular, to ongoing activities in Germany (supported by BMBF) focusing on organic photovoltaics. In response, it was pointed out by scientists in the JTI that uptake of organic photovoltaics had been problematic as well because of technical difficulties with encapsulation and strong competition with other available technologies.Footnote 43
The signals given by Friends of the Earth were used by green-oriented parties in European Parliament in the debate in Parliament about the sustainability policy of European governments and companies (together with electronic displays in magazines as an example of carelessness in dealing with environmental aspects). The critical question was raised whether EC investments in the JTI on lighting will ever realize the promise of reduction of energy consumption. As a Green Party MP summarized it: “European citizens expect governments and companies to deploy sustainable strategies in product development.”Footnote 44
By 2014, actors from the lighting industry and more broadly had realized that the rhetorics of breakthrough were not sufficient to create a learning curve that would overtake competing of existing technologies in the lighting market (fluorescent, halogen, and LED), especially when these were improving as well. The high hopes for reducing costs through new manufacturing processes had entailed some neglect of other aspects like efficiency and longevity.Footnote 45 Further competitive pressure was visible in the construction sector because of pressure from the European Energy Performance of Buildings directive that aimed at achieving strong energy use reductions by 2019. Lumiotec was leveraging on the use of high-performance materials that were processed in standard evaporation lines and the demand for flat OLED panels was rising.Footnote 46
In this situation, a major move occurred when a big incumbent, Philips, recognizing the dynamics of supply and demand, announced that it would start producing OLED lighting panels in license from Lumiotec.Footnote 47 This undermined the credibility of the ongoing JTI, and the OLAE landscape in Europe started to shift.
In the 2015 participants’ meeting in Brussels, the JTI coordinator evaluated the situation: “We have been able to make large steps forward in this project, but to compete in the market for general lighting challenges have to be solved on the materials side. This will take longer than we expected. It is still possible to use the manufacturing technology platform developed in the JTI for production of organic photovoltaics. But the requirements for encapsulation are tough and have to be addressed”.Footnote 48
The EC immediately embraced the proposal to shift the focus to organic photovoltaics to show their intent to provide solutions to some of society’s biggest problems, such as climate change. The JTI followed, with some grumbling of participants, and a new promise was put upfront: Cleaner and renewable energy thanks to photovoltaics. The weaknesses were recognized as well, and new collaborations were forged with materials suppliers that specialized in encapsulation applications of photovoltaics. A preliminary analysis of the public consultation on the future of JTI showed widespread support among stakeholders for the new move.
When the original coordinator of JTI was interviewed for the Christmas 2015 issue of The Economist, and the interviewer asked whether “with the benefit of hindsight it might have been better to focus on organic photovoltaics from the beginning rather than lighting,” he got a nuanced answer. “The drive for wealth creation at the time may have biased us, but important learning occurred, in particular that a major hurdle existed in the problems with encapsulation. You need a concerted effort to learn such things that were not clearly seen in the beginning. Even if the original goal wasn’t achieved, the investment may have been worth it.”