When Will OLEDs be the Next Big Thing in Lighting?

OLEDs have been gaining in popularity lately, mainly in displays, but also more recently in general lighting. They offer many benefits over traditional and LED lighting, including being a surface emitting light source (as opposed to point emitting), being extremely thin, and having the capability to be flexible and even transparent. OLEDs open the doors to really innovative and creative light forms that were previously not possible with traditional lighting. However, they still have a ways to go in efficacy, lumen output, and price compared to their less expensive inorganic counterparts that are still struggling to really penetrate into the market.

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OLEDs have been gaining in popularity lately, mainly in displays, but also more recently in general lighting. They offer many benefits over traditional and LED lighting, including being a surface emitting light source (as opposed to point emitting), being extremely thin, and having the capability to be flexible and even transparent. OLEDs open the doors to really innovative and creative light forms that were previously not possible with traditional lighting. However, they still have a ways to go in efficacy, lumen output, and price compared to their less expensive inorganic counterparts that are still struggling to really penetrate into the market.

In terms of efficacy, some OLEDs can already outperform most conventional lighting with efficacy currently in the range of 60 lm/W (although some companies still only have between 10-40 lm/W). This is expected to increase to over 100 lm/W next year, which will definitely make them a contender with LED lighting.

In terms of lumen output, this is where OLEDs struggle. They give off a great surface emitting light that is fine for more ambient or decorative purposes but is not strong enough for directional useful light. They would not be a good replacement for downlights, track lights, high bay, or outdoor lighting as their light is not strong enough. The lumen output will continue to improve, and they will eventually be able to compete in area lighting applications.

And finally, price. OLED luminaires are still way too expensive for lighting (general and decorative). Even if OLEDs had comparable efficacy and lumen output to traditional and LED lighting, they still cannot, and will not, be able to compete on price for many years. In a market where price dominates, this is a huge inhibiting factor to their adoption. In the downlight, troffer, and suspended pendant luminaire market, OLED luminaires are currently between 10-20 times more expensive than traditional and LED luminaires, and this gap will only decrease to being around 2-3 times more expensive in five years’ time.

The portable and decorative market would be one where price isn’t necessarily key, where design and aesthetics are higher up on a customer’s list, and where we should see OLEDs being able to penetrate first. But even in the high-end portable and decorative market, OLEDs are still too expensive for many customers, and panel LED lighting continues to improve and can mimic the qualities that make OLEDs unique.

So what is the future for OLED lighting? If manufacturers cannot get prices down so they are comparable with LEDs (whose prices are trying to be comparable with traditional lighting), then unfortunately the outlook does not look good. But if their prices continue to drop and their light output continues to increase, then OLEDs can definitely penetrate. But at that point, would it be worth it for manufacturers?

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