(Bloomberg) — South Korea’s UTI Inc. has set itself the ambitious goal of growing tenfold over the next two to three years, and its key for unlocking that surge is its ultrathin foldable display glass.
The company, a supplier of camera lens covers to many of the world’s top smartphone vendors, has developed what it calls UTI Folding Glass (UFG), which costs half as much as rival technology and is already in testing by around ten firms, including Chinese and American phone makers, Chief Executive Officer Doug Park said in an interview.
Foldables represent the next stage of evolution for the plateaued smartphone market, but the first examples of the category — from Samsung Electronics Co., Huawei Technologies Co. and Lenovo Group Ltd.’s Motorola — have been expensive and underwhelming, in part because of their plastic displays that have been prone to scratching and creasing. Specialist glass is going to upgrade the quality and clarity of future foldable displays, with U.S., Japanese and Korean companies vying for business. Samsung’s display unit has its own solution, but the UTI chief argued his glass has the advantage of being more robust and easier to produce.
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“Smartphone makers are comparing glass and plastic screens for foldable phones, but I think they will 100% ultimately choose glass in the future,” Park said. A number of global smartphone brands are currently testing or considering UFG for their upcoming devices, he added without specifying their names.
UTI’s prototype foldable glass panels are superior to plastic in their scratch resistance and are thus compatible with stylus pens, such as the ones Samsung bundles with its Galaxy Note devices. The crease problem that’s plagued early foldables is also minimized, said the CEO, and UTI’s production technique doesn’t require exotic types of glass, cutting the raw materials cost by as much as 80%.
In cooperation with local vendor Dowoo Insys, Samsung Display has been the sole foldable glass supplier so far, providing the Galaxy Z Flip’s ultrathin glass panel. As more phone makers get into the segment, the global capacity is set to increase to at least 1.5 million panels per month by the end of 2021, according to Ross Young, CEO of research firm DSCC.
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In the first half of next year, UTI’s Park expects to see three to four foldable devices featuring his firm’s UFG arrive on the market. Capable of producing 200,000 panels per month today, the company anticipates ramping capacity up “to half a million a month on average in the second half of next year and that would raise $25 million per month.”
The Covid-19 pandemic impacted UTI’s earnings by 20% as the smartphone market took a nosedive in the first half of 2020, but the company expects a recovery in the latter half. Development of foldable devices has been slowed by the virus as clients have been unable to travel as usual, said UTI Chief Financial Officer Koh Tae-hoon.
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Most of Samsung’s flagship phones use UTI’s lens covers for their cameras. The smaller company has established relationships with about a dozen device makers, most of them smartphone vendors, and it says four-fifths of them are testing UFG for their folding products.
“In terms of costs, our foldable glass is twice cheaper than that of competitors. I think the price of foldable phones will fall,” Park said. “Our company has been keeping a cautious approach in business by depending on products with low cost and wide volume of sales. But our sales can grow 10 times in 2-3 years with the foldable glass business.”
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