By Mathias Mydlak, Global Business Development Manager at SCHOTT for Special Flat Glass & Wafer
While telecom companies are competing over 5G technology in India, mobile device manufacturers remain constantly occupied with introducing new trends and designs in the world’s second-largest mobile phone market. As the dynamic smartphone market keeps witnessing innovations to make new-age phones smarter, design elements too need to be upgraded in order to attract the buyers in the vast market.
Smartphones are getting sleeker and more aesthetic; as consumers demand models which are thin, come with a smooth finish, or are even bendable, etc. As per a 2019 report by Gartner, foldable phones will account for 5 percent of high-end phones by 2023, amounting to 30 million units globally. In India too, the trend has gained much popularity, with Samsung seen as a pioneer with introducing its first-generation foldable phone range, with display cover glass that can really fold. This was made possible with support from the German technology Group, SCHOTT which is manufacturing glass thinner than a human hair, making it bendable to be used in foldable gadgets.
Structure-wise, glass is a layered network of different elements, forming thousands of interconnected layers. One can imagine how such a structure would become very rigid and lose its flexibility. That is why glass is conventionally not flexible. However, just like metal compounds, flexibility can be introduced in glass too, by drastically reducing its thickness. The foldable displays in foldable mobile devices have large glass displays that can be folded like a sheet of paper, enabling higher portability and usability.
Many glass makers around the world have been investing in extensive R&D to prepare foldable glass. However, it is a challenge to convert such a brittle material to a flexible form, while maintaining its durability and scratch resistance. Until now, mobile manufacturers were hence forced to use a layer of polymer on foldable phone displays, compromising the durability and scratch resistance of their devices. However, SCHOTT, with a legacy of over 135 years in specialty glass has been successful in addressing these concerns with its foldable ultra-thin glass, Xensation Flex, which has an ability to be chemically toughened.
The process of making foldable glass goes beyond the conventional processes that are long known by glass makers around the world. To bring flexibility in glass, we cannot use traditional processes, which deal with a large volume of glass and require moving and shaping of a lot of glass into desirable dimensions. One proven way to meet these requirements is SCHOTT’s proprietary down-draw manufacturing process. Imagine there is a huge plastic container filled with honey. If we take a sharp razor blade and slice the container open at the bottom, the honey will start pouring out as a basic curtain of honey and we will be able to control the thickness of this curtain of honey depending upon how quickly can we draw it downward like a ribbon. The faster we draw it, the thinner the layer will become.
SCHOTT has already brought down the thickness to 15 microns in lab conditions. This would be as minuscule as just two blood cells on top of each other! Through this process, SCHOTT’s Xensation Flex glass can reach a bending radius of just one millimeter after advanced post-processing. Hence, this is still glass, but it is flexible enough to bend with a radius of just one millimeter.
Expertise in this process has successfully been used at SCHOTT AG for over 25 years to manufacture its UTG range. However, SCHOTT’s specialized glass goes a step further to help mobile manufacturers use such delicate glass in their devices. To begin with, the ultra-thin glass with such low thickness is even more delicate and fragile. Thus, the glass has to undergo a process of chemical toughening which makes it as durable as possible. Then it also needs to have special housings and mountings in a mobile device to protect the glass from any potential damage. SCHOTT’s Xensation Flex is the first flexible glass that can be chemically toughenable to reach extremely high strength and flexibility. It achieves this property with help of sophisticated design of glass composition combined with a fire-polished surface from proprietary downdraw production. With this, the glass becomes very smooth to touch and the light reflections look very pleasing, giving the phone display a premium look and feel. That is a huge advantage offered by UTG compared to polymers, which are typically good for complex structures and 3D shapes.
SCHOTT Xensation Flex is supplied to leading mobile manufacturers, to be used as raw material for displays on their latest foldable devices. The company has acquired a supreme quality of craftsmanship and unmatched excellence, due to its long legacy of being a technology pioneer and a global innovation hub. Foldable glass is one of its many achievements as a glass pioneer. SCHOTT’s innovations have also been paving the way to enable enhanced security features like 3D imaging and facial recognition sensors, which require high performance and top-quality specialty thin glass with outstanding transmission and flatness. Its high-index glass wafers are also instrumental for immersive Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) experiences through a gadget.
With so many more specialized applications, ranging from 5G enabler devices to packaging material for life-saving vaccines, specialty glass is taking leaps in shaping the future of many industries.