Kateeva OLED inkjet

Some wearable Health Tech devices are primarily sensors that transmit data wirelessly to some base unit (such as a smartphone or tablet) that processes and sends the data along for analysis and reporting. But other devices — such as smartwatches — need a way to convey information to the user. In some cases, a simple flashing LED or two can do the trick, if all you need to do is alert the wearer that the battery needs to be recharged, or some other simple status message. But to convey a significant amount of information, the device needs a display. And this is where things get tricky.

A wearable Health Tech display needs to use as little power as possible, in order to keep the size of the battery small and yet have long operating times between recharging. The display needs to be as lightweight as possible, and given the fact that it’s wearable, it must be more rugged than a device that sits safely on a desktop or in a protective case. And it doesn’t hurt if the display is fast, bright, and colorful. One major display technology checks all these boxes: OLED.

One problem with OLED displays is that they are not easy to make. At present, commercial production uses batch-processing of glass substrates in vacuum chambers, much the same as LCD panel production. The dream is to make display production much faster and cheaper, with high yields while keeping out the oxygen and water vapor that destroy the sensitive OLED materials. And if these displays can be fabricated on inexpensive, lightweight, durable, and flexible plastic substrates instead of glass, then you could have a winning approach.

That’s what the California company Kateeva has developed. Their engineers have created a system that uses inkjet printing technology to deposit the OLED display materials on glass or plastic substrates, as well as the all-important protective layer that seals out the oxygen and water vapor. They have also developed a way to seal the entire machine in a pure nitrogen atmosphere while filtering out more of the microscopic particles that can spoil a display panel.

The news is that others are buying into Kateeva’s vision. This week, the company announced a new $38 million round of financing, with Samsung Venture Investment Corporation joining a half dozen other groups in providing the funding. The fact that Samsung is supporting the program boosts its credibility, and will help it sell and place the initial production systems that are currently being built. If Kateeva’s approach pays off, it could make lower-cost, flexible, and durable displays available to designers of wearable Health Tech products.