Robotics & Automation News

Market trends and business perspectives

Beam me up, Scotty. Or send me a foldable smartphone

If you’re among the millions of people who watched the sci-fi TV show Westworld and saw the folding smartphones used by some of the characters, you probably immediately thought, “I want one of those.”

That’s what we thought anyway.

And whereas the old, 1960s Star Trek showed off tablet computers and other technologies many decades before they were beamed into our collective – and possibly holographic – reality, nowadays, things happen slightly faster.

One of the many folding devices featured on Westworld

Westworld only finished airing its second series last year, and already we have Samsung releasing the Galaxy Fold smartphone, which, as the name suggests, sports a foldable screen.

And despite reports citing reviewers of the phone finding that the screen breaks in their hands while they are testing them, Samsung is not giving up.

According to New Scientist, several people who had been given early access to the Galaxy Fold said they had busted the screen “after a day’s use”.

Samsung was planning to release the Galaxy Fold on April 26th, but responded to the reviewers’ findings by delaying it to an as-yet undecided date.

In a statement, the company says: “We recently unveiled a completely new mobile category: a smartphone using multiple new technologies and materials to create a display that is flexible enough to fold. We are encouraged by the excitement around the Galaxy Fold.

“While many reviewers shared with us the vast potential they see, some also showed us how the device needs further improvements that could ensure the best possible user experience.

“To fully evaluate this feedback and run further internal tests, we have decided to delay the release of the Galaxy Fold. We plan to announce the release date in the coming weeks.

“Initial findings from the inspection of reported issues on the display showed that they could be associated with impact on the top and bottom exposed areas of the hinge. There was also an instance where substances found inside the device affected the display performance.

“We will take measures to strengthen the display protection. We will also enhance the guidance on care and use of the display including the protective layer so that our customers get the most out of their Galaxy Fold.

“We value the trust our customers place in us and they are always our top priority. Samsung is committed to working closely with customers and partners to move the industry forward. We want to thank them for their patience and understanding.”

What the reviewers were doing to cause it to break has not been detailed anywhere that we’ve seen. Presumably, they were using the device as one would use it on an everyday basis, just open and shut and use as normal.

But going by past reviews of some iPhone models in which the Apple device was found to bend, putting it in the back pockets of their jeans and sitting on their not-inconsiderable posteriors is probably not out of the question either.

Or even taking a hammer to it.

In other words, if you really want to break a smartphone, you probably could find many ways of doing so.

In any case, Samsung has heeded the warnings about the winds of change emanating from the reviewers’ exertions and, despite the “excitement”, placed the launch of the new $2,000 smartphone on hold indefinitely.

New technology almost always has some initial problems, so some people might have expected this.

However, after seeing Samsung’s video (below) in which a robot folds and unfolds the new smartphone over and over again in preparation for commercial use, one could perhaps have expected the device to have performed better in reviews.

Samsung says it subjected the Galaxy Fold to “several rounds of extensive tests” before announcing the launch date.

The company says its folding test “examines whether the Galaxy Fold can outlast 200,000 folds and unfolds – or around five years of use, if used 100 times a day”, and takes a full week to complete.

It’s unlikely every single Galaxy Fold is tested in this way, just the prototypes and production models.

But that sounds like it should have been enough to evaluate the durability of the device.

The information regarding the actual material used for the foldable screen is not immediately available, but it’s likely that Samsung developed it by itself.

The company has a long-term, multi-billion-dollar research and development operation, and supplies some components and materials to rival smartphone makers including Apple.

And together, these two smartphone giants – and the sector in general – have made technologies that were previously unattainably expensive more affordable.

Sophisticated sensors are a good example of a component that was too pricey in the past. But through mass manufacturing of literally billions of smartphones and tablets, this critical technology is now cost-effective enough to be applied to many other devices and machines across a range of industries.

It’s probably inevitable that Samsung’s current problem – if indeed it does occur from reasonable usage – will eventually be resolved.

It’s difficult to say where else foldable screens will eventually be found, but if large-scale manufacturers like Samsung and Apple do not make them affordable in the way they did sensors, foldable may, unfortunately, be consigned to the dustbin of tech history.

They won’t go away completely since there are bound to be some customers who will be able to afford the high prices of low-volume production.

Moreover, there are some companies which are developing materials which have properties which allow them to be folded and even stretched without breaking.

Hereaus is one example, as reported by Robotics and Automation News. The company recently demonstrated a material it calls “Clevios HY E”, which it says consists of silver nanowires for higher conductivity and conductive polymers as a flexible binding agent that allows for a smaller bending radius.

Hereaus illustration showing devices with folding screens

Hereaus says that, in tests the company conducted, films coated with the material have been folded more than 300,000 times with a bending radius of 1 mm – with no impairment of their conductivity.

Dr Armin Sautter, head of technical service display at Heraeus Electronic Chemicals, says: “Our conductive material already possesses all the requisite electronic and mechanical properties.

“Even during implementation, we can provide support to display manufacturers as they implement individual adaptations of the material and develop processes for series production.”

The company is clearly aiming at the smartphone and tablet computer market, and has partnered with a Taiwanese touch panel manufacturer to develop a prototype.

Dr Sautter adds: “This prototype clearly demonstrates how sophisticated and robust our materials are.

“Now we are looking for technological partnerships to implement additional applications.”

Robotics and Automation News further reports that Hereaus has also invested in a company called Forciot, which has developed a stretchable material suitable for electronics.

Whether the foldable and stretchable can work together is an unanswered question. But for now, the stretchable stuff is of interest to Hereaus’ co-investor, automotive company Volvo.

So, while the reported problem with the Galaxy Fold may be genuine enough for the company to put the launch on hold, it’s probably only a matter of time before we finally have the opportunity to purchase a foldable smartphone or tablet.

Where we’ll get the $2,000 or more to pay for it is another unanswered question.