Apple Working w/TSMC to Develop Micro Displays w/Micro LEDs
April 09, 2018
DigiTimes Luke Lin reports that Apple is gearing up efforts on micro LED panels for both small-size applications and has received support from Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. Apple is working with TSMC to develop micro LED panels on silicon-based backplanes for use in the Apple Watch and an augmented reality (AR) wearable device. Apple is also working on another project developing large-size micro LED panels on TFT-based backplanes and will use them in products sized much larger than its MacBooks, said DigiTimes. Citing upstream sources, Lin pointed out that Apple is preparing two sizes of micro LED panels for small-size applications: a 1.3- to 1.4-inch one for its future Apple Watch and a 0.7- to 0.8-inch one for an AR wearable device, potentially AR glasses. The Apple Watch micro LED panel may enter mass production in the second half of 2018 or in 2019, while the large-size one may enter mass production in 2019 or later, stated Lin. The panel for the AR wearable device has yet to have a mass production schedule, the senior Digitimes Research analyst added. However, Lin believes Apple will only adopt the micro LED panel in the top-of-the-line models of its upcoming Apple Watch series initially. The costs of the new micro LED panels are 400-600% higher than those of the existing Apple Watch's same-size OLED panels, Lin estimates.
According to Mark Gurman from Bloomberg despite some ups and downs since it acquired the microLED start up LuxVue in 2014, Apple is still committed to the technology and hoping to begin mass production within the next few years.
The bulk of the development effort, however, is focused on transfer, assembly and interconnects, with more than 40 patents. The emphasis is on the company’s MEMS-based microchip transfer technology that was at the core of LuxVue effort.
Other key patents cover multiple aspects of microLED technologies such as improving the efficiency of microLED chips, another challenge that has been vexing companies trying to leverage the large efficiency gains that microLED display could offers. Color conversion, light management, pixel and display architectures, testing, and integration of sensors are other key aspects, which Apple is addressing in its portfolio.
While the bulk of the microLED display research effort started around 2010, digging deeper into the global microLED IP landscape reveals some important patents filed by companies like Sony, Sharp and various research organizations all the way back to the early 2000’s. Enabling microLED displays requires bringing together three major levels of expertise: LED, transistor backplanes (glass or Si-CMOS based) and chip transfer. The supply chain is complex and lengthy compared to that of traditional displays. Each process is critical and managing every aspect effectively will be challenging. No one company appears today positioned to execute across these multiple technologies and be able to vertically integrate all of the components.
Recent investments by Facebook, Sharp/Foxconn, Google, Intel and Samsung confirm the growing interest and point toward a challenging but exciting future for micro LEDs. With more than 120 companies involved and the efforts accelerating at all major companies, there is no doubt that the buzz will keep increasing and the industry landscape evolve at an accelerating pace.”
Figure 1: Apple/LuxVue Micro LED Patents
Source: Company Data/OLED-A
The sales of iPhone X turned out to be less than market expectation, so Samsung has lowered the utilization rate of OLED production lines. The tight supply of OLED panels over the past two years has also been eased. According to WitsView, a division of TrendForce, Apple has initiated the trend of OLED panels, and it is estimated that the penetration rate of OLED panel in smartphones will reach 46% by 2021. Mini LED is overwhelmed by OLED’s technology maturity and competitive costs, so it might be hard for Mini LED to grow in the smartphone market in short term.