Sapphire Substrate At New Crossroads:Huge Differences Between Mainstream and Niche Market Product Visibility

The LED and sapphire substrate industry has a very close relationship. Through the use of industrial equipment, crystals are grown from raw materials which are then grinded into crystal bars. These bars are then sliced into sapphire substrate wafers. The majority of which are supplied to LED production. Due to the hardness and suitable structure of sapphire substrate for LED applications, the two have long been used in combination. 

Current demand for sapphire substrate mainly comes from the LED lighting market, and smartphones for non-LED applications, such as home button, iPhone 5s, and smartphone camera components. In LEDinside’s latest sapphire substrate report, analysts projected smartphone industry demands will be a major momentum for sapphire substrate growth demands, and will take a 31% share in non-LED applications. Prices for 2 inch and 4 inch sapphire substrate materials have already risen, but will it keep going up in the future? Further increase in price depends on demand and supply in the market. If LED lighting demand continues to increase in the future, sapphire substrate related manufacturer equipment purchases will slow down, and prices will further increase. 

With the advancement in package free technology, the newly launched LUXEON Q by Philips Lumileds uses flip chip technology and does not require sapphire substrate to be removed during the final stage of production. The goal is to replace the commonly used 3535 series package products on the market. Package free technology and flip chip technology have greatly reduced production costs giving manufacturers new application concepts, which might affect sapphire substrate prices. 

New applications directly segment sapphire substrate into LED and non-LED camps

Man-made sapphire substrate has more advantages than Corning’s Gorilla glass substrate. Even though the sapphire substrate has a remarkable hardness of 9 on the Mohs scale, it has even higher density. When both sapphire substrate and Gorilla Glass are of the same size, Corning’s specialty glass is much lighter. 

Apple has recently invested US$ 580 million in GT Advance Technologies (GTAT) equipment and establish a new factory in Arizona, U.S. for sapphire substrate production. Apple has filed a “sapphire laminates” patent which discusses various ways to laminate sapphire sheets together or laminated on top of glass. This production method has much lower costs than conventional sapphire production methods. The technology could be used to laminate the assembly together in iPhones which is expected to be able to cut sapphire substrate costs considerably by implementing this method, and can even introduce this new technology into wearable devices, according to a TechCrunch report.  

GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT) and Apple have therefore begun cooperating to create higher quality sapphire substrate technology. Unit cost could possibly be higher than mainstream technologies in the market. If GTAT extends into the sapphire substrate LED application market, there will definitely be price competition pressure. However, if the company is to make customized Apple spec sapphire substrate components, it will be more economical and takes into consideration technology and costs. 

(Author: Ivan Lin, Editor-In-Chief, LEDinside)

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