Mother Glass

It all starts with the mother glass. That's the foundation for building an LCD panel. Everything else—the individual red, green, and blue elements of each pixel and the interconnects necessary to drive them—are grown on it.

But if you want to manufacture, let's say, a 46-inch LCD panel, it isn't very efficient to produce them individually. Instead, you use a mother glass large enough to make several panels. After the production process is complete, you cut the mother glass into as many 46" panels as it will accommodate.

Sounds easy, but sometimes you have to take drastic steps to reach peak production efficiency—steps like building an entirely new factory. That's what Sharp has done with their second plant located in rural Kameyama, Japan.

I was among the journalists who visited the new factory earlier this month, following a Sharp-sponsored press trip to the annual CEATEC show in Tokyo (see the blog below).

The new Kameyama Plant 2, with 279,000 square meters (over 3 million square feet) on seven floors, is more than twice the size of Plant 1. In addition to its state-of-the-art production facilities, the plant is also distinguished by an admirable dedication to energy conservation. Sharp is a major manufacturer of solar panels, and huge clusters of these panels on the roof of all the Kameyama facilities provide at least a portion of the power needed for their operation.

We didn't see a lot of activity on our visit for two reasons. First, Kameyama 2 just opened for business this past August and if I read Sharp's graphical data correctly is currently functioning at just one-sixth of its ultimate capacity. When Plant 2 reaches full operation in the spring of 2008 Plants 1 and 2 combined will have a total potential output of nearly 2 million 32" panels a month. With worldwide demand for LCD digital televisions expected to reach 123 million (!) per year by FY2010, according to independent studies, this doesn't sound like an unreasonable objective.

But it's unlikely that Sharp will produce that many 32" panels. Kameyama 2 will be dedicated to producing the larger panels that are popular in much of the world (but not in Japan, where smaller sets fit better in the average Japanese family's compact living space).

To that end, those larger sets require the larger mother glass mentioned above. Sharp's latest generation mother glass, Generation 8, will produce eight 46" or six 52" panels (all of them 1920 x 1080 or, to use Sharp's terminology, Full High-Definition) from a single mother glass (Sharp's G7 glass could only fit three 52" panels). That's an efficiency of over 80%. Less wasted material means lower costs for Sharp and, everything else being equal, lower prices for consumers.

The second reason we didn't see much activity is the incredible secrecy that surrounds the manufacturing of LCD flat panels. But that doesn’t mean we didn't see anything interesting. Sharp is working hard to improve LCD performance, particularly in areas where the technology has traditionally underperformed. We saw demonstrations showing improved off-axis performance, faster response time, and deeper blacks.

Many of these developments are already starting to find their way into Sharp sets, but there's more to come in the next year or two. The MEGA Contrast technology we saw at CEATEC (with a claimed 1,000,000:1 native contrast) is slated to appear in future Sharp Pro models. While these will likely be priced well beyond the reach of most consumers, the company is also aiming for further contrast improvements in all their future Premium and High-Grade consumer sets. Already, the company is claiming 10,000:1 Dynamic and 2000:1 native contrast in its new D62U-series (46" and 52", both 1920 x 1080), the first sets to come from the new G8 mother glass. Those sets also claim a fast, 4ms response time and incorporate a four-wavelength backlight that adds a crimson red to the usual blue, green, and red colors of conventional backlights.

Finally, we were given a tour of the plant's exhibit of Sharp's past and future products. The company has certainly come a long way since its first use of LCDs in a 1971 pocket calculator. Yes, that's it at the top of this blog, along with its innards. Who knew then what would come from such a modest, first step.