Apple, one of the world's largest companies, develops consumer electronics and computer software, and the company also develops a wide range of next generation technologies.
In 2014 Apple acquired LuxVue Technology, a startup company that developed Micro-LED based displays. LuxVue raised $43 million in funding prior to the Apple purchase. Since the LuxVue acquisition, Apple accelerated its MicroLED R&D project and is developing solutions for smartwatches, AR and other display types. Apple established a dedicated microLED research and production facility in Taoyuan, Taiwan.
Apple microLED Watch
Apple continues to develop its MicroLED technologies. The company's first goal is to adopt microLED displays in smart watch devices. The latest Watch devices use LTPO OLED displays, but a microLED display will enable Apple to extend the Watch battery life and increase its brightness. According to the latest report Apple's current plan is to release its first microLED powered watch by 2026.
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According to a report from Taiwan's Economic Daily news, a new mini-LED and micro-LED display factory is under planning in Taiwan's Hsinchu Science Park. The new fab is built by Apple (who will invest $334 million) in collaboration with AU Optronics and Epistar.
According to the report, the Science Park Administartion approved Apple, Auo and Epistar's plan on February 18. The new fab will act as an expansion of Apple's existing display center in Taiwan.
Yole Developpement reports that about 5,500 microLED patents (2,500 patent families) have been filed, by more than 350 organizations. The rate of patent filing is growing exponentially - 40% of the patents were filed in 2019.
According to Yole, the recent patent filing shows that the industry is moving from prototypes to commercial consumer displays. Other notable new finding include that startup companies are a major innovation force, Apple is slowing down with its IP (but this could mean that the company is now focused on commercialization), and Samsung pursues multiple development tracks. BOE is another strong microLED IP player, with almost 150 patent familiies filed in 2019.
Market analysts at Yole Developpement say that microLED shipments will reach over 125 million panels by 2027. In their aggressive scenario, shipments will reach almost 450 million.
Yole says that microLED technologies are advancing rapidly - and on all fronts, but there are still many challenges to overcome before mass production arrives. MicroLED makes a strong case for the AR, smartwatch and automotive market. For the smartphones and TV markets it is less clear whether MicroLEDs could succeed.
According to Taiwan's Economic News Daily, PlayNitride and RiTDisplay are in talks with Apple to supply microLED displays for Apple's next-generation Watch wearable.
These are just rumors at this stage, but END says that PlayNitride confirms it is in talks with US customers regarding a 3" full-color Micro-LED display. This interesting as this is not a display we are used to see in most mobile devices - wearables are usually limited to around 1.5" while smartphones today start at around 6".
Market research firm Yole DÃ©veloppement has been following the Micro-LED market for some years with some very interesting insights and forecasts.
Yole's technology & market analyst Zine Bouhamri was kind enough to discuss Yole's Micro-LED views with us. Mr. Zine is is a member of the Photonics, Sensing & Display division at Yole and he's deeply involved in the business development of the Displays unit activities.
n-tech Research says that the Micro-LED market will emerge in 2019, with sales reaching $2.7 billion. The market will grow very quickly to reach over $70 billion in 2027.
n-Tech says that the immediate markets for Micro-LED displays will be near-eye displays (AR/VR), automotive HUDs and projectors - as these will benefit mostly from the small size, low weight, high brightness and high resolution of Micro-LED displays. Wearables (smartwatches) is another lucrative market (n-Tech sees $1.6 billion in smartwatch Micro-LED display sales in 2022).
Digitimes reports that Taiwan's Ministry of Science and Technology approved PlayNitride's application to setup a NT$500 million (US$17 million) production facility at Hsinchu Science Park.
PlayNitride aims to produce micro LEDs, display modules and panels at its new facility at Hsinchu. According to Digitimes, Apple is in preliminary talks with PlayNitride towards a possible Micro-LED technology cooperation.
Earlier this month Bloomberg reported that Apple is progressing with its Micro-LED development project, and has already managed to produce promising display samples. Now Taiwan's Digitimes reports that Apple is collaborating with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) towards mass production of Micro-LED panels.
Apple and TSMC are focusing on small-sized micro-LEDs on silicon based backplanes, targeting both wearable devices and AR applications. The Micro-LED microdisplays for AR applications will be around 0.7-0.8 inch in size, while the wearable panels will be larger at 1.3-1.4 inch.
The Korea Herald reports that Apple and its subsidiary LuxVue Technology applied for over 30 Micro-LED patents in Korea in the past 10 years. As Apple's Micro-LED project is progressing, the company aims to prevent its competitors in Korea (mainly Samsung and LGD) from using its key Micro-LED technology.
According to the report, Apple applied for 11 patents directly, while LuxVue applied for 23 patents. LuxVue was acquired by Apple in 2014. Apple applied for patents that related to the Micro-LED chip structure, the pick-and-place process and the driving system.
According to a report by Bloomberg, Apple is making good progress in its Micro-LED development project, and has managed to produce promising display samples. Apple is seeking to use Micro-LED displays in future wearable products.
Apple is not likely to become a MicroLED producer, and it will seek partners to eventually produce the displays. However controlling the basic technology could be very beneficial to Apple that aims to be the only company able to use Micro-LED displays - starting in wearables, but also perhaps in smartphones and VR HMDs. In any case, Bloomberg reports that it will still take a few years before Apple's technology is ready for production.