Goodbye Bitter 2016: Emerging Micro-LED Applications (Part 3)

(Authors: Skavy Cheng, Editor, LEDinside China and Judy Lin, Chief Editor, LEDinside)

Micro-LED became a hot keyword in 2016, despite being years away from commercialization. Most in the industry agree this exciting next generation display technology will not be realized for another 3-5 years, HSBC projects the earliest date of commercialization will be around 2019 earliest.

Technology barriers in micro-LED to name a few include mass transfer of infinite micron sized LEDs onto a backplane, creating miniaturized RGB LEDs with uniform wavelength emissions, and achieving nearly 100% yield rates to minimize the impact of dead pixels in smaller displays. Thermal dissipation issues and IC driver designs, all present reliability issues that continue to hinder the progress of large scale micro-LED adaption. Despite these challenges some brave manufacturers are willing to experiment with this challenging technology, with some emerging market applications worth noting for years to come.

Sony's first generation micro-LED display CLEDIS. (Sony/LEDinside)

Sony releases micro-LED display CLEDIS

Japanese consumer electronic giant Sony showcased its micro-LED display CLEDIS at InfoComm 2016 at IFA last June. The display comprises of micro-LED components that are stitched together to form a seamless display, which the Japanese electronic manufacturer claims delivers a performance that is on par with next generation OLED technology.

The micro-LED display for commercial applications was showcased again at CES 2017, where the company announced it will be available on the market by March this year.

Sony’s CLEDIS is based on small pitch LED display technology, with each pitch being merely 1.2 millimeters. This small pitch LED display relies on RGB LED components to form a single pixel, large numbers of pixels are then packaged to compose a display component. The components are then assembled and seamlessly stitched together to form a large display.

The display components are assembled together and offer substantial flexibility in the displays dimensions and size designs, since each component is extremely small it can form a very thin bezel around the edges of the display. The resolution of the display can also be customized with the number of components assembled together ranging from 2K to higher resolutions of 4K and above. Sony is currently targeting B2B market applications, such as large digital signs, large public displays, venue displays, and automotive design evaluations.

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Apple develops micro-LED displays for upcoming smartwatch

Even though the upgraded Apple Watch 2 launched in 2016 still uses OLED displays, the next generation Apple smartwatch might be featuring micro-LED screens, reported Apple Insider.

Several Taiwanese media also reported throughout June 2016, that Apple will be gradually replacing OLED panels with micro-LED displays by second half of 2017. Apple established a R&D lab in Northern Taiwan’s Hsinchu country in April 2015 to develop the micro-LED technology, reported some of the media.

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Apple tests micro-LED technology

In early July 2016, a research institute noted Apple started operating pilot projects on FHD micro-LED technologies since second quarter that year. The sample micro-LED pixels tested were a size of 30 micronmeters.

Micro-LEDs are microscopic sized LEDs that are transferred onto a CMOS or TFT backplane to make a display with high resolution, compared to traditional LED-backlit LCD TVs and monitors, micro-LEDs possess self-illuminating properties and does not require additional backlight. Apple’s biggest issue at the moment is the micro-LED displays extremely low luminous efficacy, which is roughly equivalent to about 60% to 70% of OLEDs.

To solve the low luminous efficacy issue, Apple is testing upgraded sapphire glass substrates and silicon substrates with the micro-LED technology. There is evidence in the industry that Apple might be collaborating with sapphire manufacturer Biel or Taiwanese semiconductor company TSMC to solve this issue.

Oculus acquires micro-LED startup to provide better VR experience

Facebook-owned virtual reality business unit Oculus showed interest in testing micro-LED technologies in October 2016, and announcd it acquired an Irish startup InfiniLED that specializes in this specific display technology. An offshoot of Tyndall Research Institute, InfiniLED, was acquired by Oculus for US $2 billion.

According to a report by Venture Beat, InfiniLED specializes in making inorganic micro-LEDs that are one tenth the size of human hair, which would be approximately 3 to 10 microns in size if a strand of hair width averaged 30 to 100 microns. The 10 micron size is probably the more realistic for the time being, as most manufacturers are still struggling to with manufacturing micro-LEDs below 10 microns.

Oculus interest in InfiniLED outlines potential progress in introducing the technology into VR headsets to generate higher resolution images and improve the immersive experience for gamers. This is also one of the leading VR device makers that has invested in micro-LED display technology with the hope of creating a better visual experience than OLED. Some media reports also speculated it was Facebook’s strategy to compete with Apple in the micro-LED sector.

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Foxconn, Sharp and Nichia position themselves in the micro-LED market sector

The innovative micro-LED technology has the potential to become a disruptive display technology, attracting large international manufacturers to start investing in the advanced technology in an attempt to become the first to make a significant breakthrough. Apple is rumored to show interest in introducing micro-LED technology into its products, which spurred Foxconn to follow suit by launching its own R&D. Foxconn chairman Terry Kuo has approved the proposed plan, and intends to collaborate with subsidiary panel business Sharp and its strategic partner Nichia to acquire a leading strategic position in the next generation display technology.

Foxconn responded the group started R&D investments in micro-LEDs and started allocating resources. The iPhone assembler aims to acquire key micro-LED technologies to solidify their market advantages.

At a press conference in Taipei, Nichia pointed out the company developed micro-LED technology for more than 10 years and possesses some leading technologies, which would accelerate its commercialization. In the first phase, the company launched panel display module capable of local dimming, which can be applied on a flexible substrate to make a flexible display. The company aims to fully utilize micro-LED technology by the second phase of the project.

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Micro-LED equipment installments to begin in 2017

Epistar and a U.S. smartphone manufacturer have been jointly developing micro-LEDs for years, according to a report by a financial institute. In the supply chain sector, many equipment manufacturers started R&D of micro-LED production equipment, which will eventually be moved into manufacturing facilities by 2017.

However, the report noted Epistar will not be mass producing micro-LEDs till after 2018. By then micro-LEDs might potentially replace OLED applications in next generation wearable devices, but will not contribute to Epistar revenues till 2018.

Unity Opto also projected there is another 5 to 10 year window before micro-LED technology reaches maturation and mass production phase, prior to this milestone LED industry will undergo volatile market changes. In the meantime, Taiwanese LED manufacturers are trying to formulate new development strategies to leave behind price wars initiated by Chinese manufacturers.

MikroMesa solves micro-LED power leakage issues from overt brightness

Micro-LED technology combines pixels with light source, the most common technology issues encountered in the sector is mass transfer of the tiny micro-LEDs onto backplanes and overt brightness. There are many different mass transfer technology solutions on the market, but most manufacturers have chosen to shrink the size of the light emitting surface area to lower power output. A disadvantage of this solution is it causes power leakages around the chip’s edges, which causes higher power consumption and decreases lumen efficiency.

Apple, Sony and other manufacturers have chosen to miniaturize the light emitting surface, and most have succeeded in shrinking the size to an average 50 um x 50 um. Apple’s reportedly has been able to further miniaturize the micro-LED to 10 um x 10 um. However, to enter the indoor display market industry insiders evaluated the size has to be further halved to below 5 um x5 um, and be power leakage free. This has presented new challenges in the micro-LEDs R&D process.

Taiwanese manufacturer Mikro Mesa was able to develop a display with a light emitting surface area of 3 um x 3 um that successfully illuminated pixels under lab conditions in 2016, said the company founder Liyi Chen. This is currently the smallest micro-LED in the world to be power leakage free, and in the future this micro-LED technology can be applied in large80-inch and above TV displays. Moreover, this micro-LED display can eventually be introduced into small wearable devices, smartwatches, smart bands and even smartphones.

Taiwanese LED manufacturers Epistar and Lextar deploy micro-LED market strategies

With micro-LED potentially becoming the next star in display technologies, Taiwanese LED manufacturers including Epistar, Lextar, AUO, and Innolux have all been active in the field with the aim of accelerating the time table of micro-LEDs commercialization.

Epistar spokesperson Rider Chang announced, due to micro-LEDs extremely small size, Epistar’s EPI-wafer and LED die manufacturing processes need to be developed simultaneously with wafer transfer equipment. In the micro-LED manufacturing process, EPI-wafer and LED dies typically have high yield rates, but more work is needed before LEDs can enter mass production in 2017.

Micro-LED is an innovative technology with many new applications, which potentially can increase LED usage volume, and is an application market where Lextar is actively deploying its market strategies, said the company Chairman and CEO David Su. Many manufacturers are actively deploying micro-LED strategies, but progress varies among companies. The products mass production dates will depend on when companies can overcome the initial phase of low yield rates, and as more manufacturers enter the market, the industry’s learning curve will gradually result in raised yield rates.

Innolux Chairman and CEO Chien-chun Wang noted flexible displays will become a future trend, and other technology options on the market aside from OLED include micro-LEDs.

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Taiwan establishes consortium to form comprehensive micro-LED supply chain

The trend of integrating electronic devices, and the permeation of multi-functional compact devices on the market has led to multi-disciplinary micro-assembly technologies that will be able to meet different innovative applications! With the support of Taiwan’s Department of Innovation and Technology under the Ministry of Economic Affairs, leading domestic research institute ITRI held press conference to celebrate the establishment of Consortium for Intelligent Micro-assembly System (CIMS). The aim of the consortium is to vertically integrate display, LEDs, semiconductor, and system integration manufacturers to jointly establish a multi-disciplinary exchange platform. The aim of the platform is to initiate R&D, and construct a comprehensive micro-assembly industry ecosystem in Taiwan.

CIMS has appointed Chih-I Wu, the Vice President and General Director of Electronic and Optoelectronic System Research Laboratories at ITRI as the first chairman. Following technology developments, products are becoming increasingly highly integrated, multi-functional, and miniaturized, said Wu. Hence, mass transfer technologies of different components that can be micro-assembled will emerge initially in micro-LED displays be applications.

Rohinni's micro-LEDs for keyboard backlight applications.(Rohinni/LEDinside)

Rohinni tests product design market with micro-LED keyboard backlight

Before micro-LEDs barges its way into every display device on the market, a U.S. micro-LED startup Rohinni is eyeing the product design market for keyboard backlight, smartphone and notebook designs. Although, the company’s products are a larger at 200 microns some industry insiders noted this is an interesting niche market to enter. It is an interesting alternative to the red sea display market, and impressively Rohinni has the capacity to scale up production for its micro-LED keyboard backlights at its factories in China. Rohinni formed, Luummi, a joint venture formed with Chinese keyboard supplier KoJa. So, LEDinside is expecting to see an increase in this particular product in computers probably especially targeting the gaming market and others. This is also a good application market to start, since micro-LEDs for display applications have more demanding color and pixel performance requirements.

Articles for further reading:

Micro-LEDs energy saving, long lifetime, high brightness and capability of being transferred onto a flexible substrate is projected to initiate a new micro-assembly trend in the near future.

Other micro-LED related articles for further reading:

  1. VerLASE Quantum Well Color Conversion Technology Positioned for Near-eyed Micro-LED Display Applications
  2. LEDInside to Explore Next Generation Micro-LED Display Technology at LEDforum 2016
  3. SSL China 2016: Nobel Laureate Shuji Nakamura Upbeat about Outlook of Micro-LED, Laser Lighting, LiFi Technologies
  4. IC Driver Manufacturer Macroblock Targets Micro-LED Market
  5. Can Micro-LED Challenge LCD and OLED Market Position?
  6. Long Wait Ahead for Commercialization of Micro-LEDs
  7. Decoding Micro-LED’s Current Driving Methods
  8. Micro-LED Can Be Game Changing for LED Industry as It Brings an Array of Value-Added Opportunities, Says LEDinside
  9. Leti: Challenges and Opportunities of Micro-LEDs in Wearables
  10. CEA LETI: Micro-LEDs Future Applications and Current Challenges
  11. Overview of Micro-LED History and Current Developments
  12. ITRI Showcases Micro-LED Technology at Computex 2016
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