How will the manufacturing of micro-LEDs on large silicon wafers be an opportunity for the market?
Manufacturing micro-LEDs on wafers has been a major challenge in terms of yield and cost. Most of the LED manufacturers today use sapphire wafers for manufacturing LEDs. These wafers are small in diameter and costly, which restrains the cost reduction of LED devices. ALLOS Semiconductors, Plessey Semiconductors, Aledia, and a few other players have developed GaN-on-silicon technology for manufacturing LEDs using conventional process. These companies are collaborating with the world’s leading LED foundries to increase the manufacturing capacity on a large scale.
The micro-LED market is estimated to grow from USD 0.60 Billion in 2019 to USD 20.50 Billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 80.1% between 2019 and 2025.
This development is expected to increase the use of large-sized wafers (more than 4 inches) for manufacturing LED products. The technology is used for making high-quality GaN-on-Si epitaxial wafers by means of MOCVD/MOVPE. However, the technology is yet to be optimized for micro-LEDs. GaN-on-Si is a promising technology for the LED market, and once developed, it can significantly impact micro-LED technology in terms of manufacturing cost.
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Will the high investment requirement in infrastructure, equipment, and process development; and the need for different manufacturing processes as well as equipment compatibility pose challenges to the Micro-LED market?
Manufacturers will have to adopt different manufacturing process and equipment or upgrade their existing systems to mass-produce micro-LED chips for different applications. Industry-leading LED manufacturers, such as Epistar (Taiwan) and Cree (US), are focusing on finding solutions that are compatible with the existing manufacturing processes. GLO AB (Sweden) demonstrated nanowires that can be grown on various substrates, such as sapphire and silicon, utilizing standard industry process equipment. Making the fabrication process compatible with existing fabrication plants is the major focus of industry-leading players.
Micro-LED technology-based displays are self-emitting, with no need for filters and liquid crystals, and industry-leading companies are finding ways to mass-produce RGB-based micro-LEDs. Down-converting micro-LEDs for display applications involves the manufacturing of very small pixel. To get down to very small pixel sizes, nanophosphors would probably not work, and even quantum dots will create some challenges due to some thermo-constraints, which make them impractical for very small pixels. Manufacturing small pixels based on micro-LED technology is comparatively easier than quantum dot or any other display technology.
Increasing interest of electronics giants — Apple, Samsung, and Sony
The rising interest of leading electronics companies—Sony, Samsung, and Apple—has encouraged further investments in micro-LED technology and accelerated the schedule for its commercialization.
Apple focuses on smartwatch application that requires significant pixel density (PPI) but low pixel volume. The company’s priority is to reduce the size of LEDs used for each pixel. However, the yield decreases with small pixel size. Currently, Apple is developing prototypes in collaboration with various LED manufacturers at its research facility in Taoyuan, Taiwan. Apple is likely to launch its next smartwatch with micro-LED displays by 2019. However, it may take longer to use the technology in smartphones, which is a critical application for micro-LED technology growth.
The flexible display market is expected to witness high growth in the smartphone and smart wearable device space, which would ultimately lead to the overall growth of the display market. A majority of the flexible display shipments in 2017 were for smartphones and smartwatches. The applications of flexible displays in tablets, automotive displays, and TVs are also expected to witness growth and are likely account for a significant market share by 2023.
Micro-LED technology has the potential to match the price and performance of LCD and OLED displays; however, its full realization will take years due to several challenges associated with mass production. Thus, micro-LED technology faces various challenges, such as the need for low-cost new designs and manufacturing processes, mass transfer-related yield issues, and supply chain issues. Intense R&D efforts are being made by display suppliers, LED suppliers, and device manufacturers to overcome these challenges.
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