The lighting industry has made huge strides in recent years, thanks largely improvements in LED bulbs' efficiency, longevity, and light output. But as long as traditional light fixtures exist, even the best LED bulbs will still be relatively limited in terms of design and aesthetics. And despite manufacturers' efforts to distribute the light evenly, bulbs still suffer as directional light sources, effectively pointing a concentrated beam of light in the direction they face.
That's why I argued last year that organic light emitting diode, or OLED, technology could eventually revolutionize the multi-billion dollar lighting industry. Remember, OLED light panels can be manufactured flat, flexible, and even semi-transparent. OLED can also be made color-tunable, and emits a soothing, even light that elicits envy from even the pickiest of art galleries.
Even so, OLED still leaves some lighting connoisseurs wanting more. Most notably, OLED still has some catching up to do with LED bulbs on absolute efficiency in terms of lumens per watt.
But if a recent collaborative agreement between glass specialist Corning Incorporated (NYSE:GLW) and OLED lighting company OLEDWorks is any indication, that might be about to change. Earlier this week, Corning announced a deal with OLEDWorks to "develop unique, flexible, and conformable OLED lighting solutions using Corning Willow Glass" as both a hermetic barrier and an integrated substrate.
What does that mean? First, note OLED is particularly sensitive to outside elements like dust and oxygen, which is where using Corning's ultra-thin, ultra-flexible Willow Glass as a hermetic barrier comes into play. And in this case, Willow Glass can also add some structural stability to the OLED light panel as a substrate material.
But perhaps most exciting is that Corning states these new panels [emphasis added] "are expected to provide two times the light output of traditional OLED lighting panels, enabling increased efficiency and lower power consumption." For that, we can likely thank the ultra-clear properties of Willow Glass for allowing significantly more light to pass through than current encapsulation barriers on plastic substrates.
If this indeed boosts the light output and efficiency of OLED lighting panels as Corning and OLEDWorks hope, it could be a huge win for Corning, OLEDWorks, and the broader OLED lighting industry.
Here's how (else) to invest
Speaking of which, Corning isn't the only way to play this development.
The primary beneficiary from increased adoption of OLEDs is a relatively small company called Universal Display (NASDAQ:OLED). Universal Display, for its part, not only licenses its OLED-centric patent portfolio, but also sells phosphorescent OLED materials to all the biggest players in the OLED industry. That includes Samsung and LG Display, who both primarily use OLED as the driving technology behind their crisp, bright OLED displays in electronics like smartphones and televisions.
Coincidentally, almost exactly two months ago Universal Display quietly announced a new license agreement with -- you guessed it -- OLEDWorks for lighting applications. Under that agreement -- which runs for the life of Universal Display's intellectual property rights -- OLEDWorks will pay Universal Display an upfront license fee and running royalties on sales of its licensed OLED lighting products.
That's not to say this is the only recent OLED lighting development, either. This past December, for example, OLED lighting enjoyed a watershed moment in retail when Home Depot began selling four different OLED light fixtures made by Acuity Brands. And in the fourth quarter of 2014, Universal Display signed new OLED lighting development agreements with both Phillips and Japanese chemical firm Kaneka.
In the end, though, regardless of which companies are developing and marketing OLED lighting, all roads eventually lead to Universal Display. As the influence and appeal of OLED lighting continues to grow over the long term, so, too, should the fortunes of Universal Display shareholders.
Steve Symington owns shares of Universal Display. The Motley Fool recommends Corning, Home Depot, and Universal Display. The Motley Fool owns shares of Corning and Universal Display. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.