With its most recent report “MicroLED Displays: Intellectual Property Landscape” written in collaboration with KnowMade, Yole Développement takes us on a global tour of the development of microLED displays, looking at which company owns which patent and the real involvement of Apple in this new industry.
Earlier this week, Bloomberg published an article highlighting microLED which generated substantial interest and debate from Wall Street. In the article, we learn that 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.
In its report, Yole Développement confirms substantial microLED IP development has been underway at Apple. The report contains a thorough analysis of more than 1,500 patents identified as relevant to the microLED field, and Apple ranks first in term of the size, strength and depth of its portfolio with more than 60 patent families.
The company’s portfolio covers many thrust areas and shows a strong commitment to tackle all the major technology bottlenecks that have so far prevented the technology from reaching the market. 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.
A strong and broad portfolio is a good indication of a company’s technology advancement, however, it’s not enough to guaranty full freedom to address the market with exclusivity, observes the report. 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.
The IP landscape reflects those challenges through the variety of players involved. Only a few companies, like Apple, have a broad microLED IP portfolio, but enough have patents on key technology bricks to predict that complex licensing and legal battles will arise if and when microLED displays enter volume manufacturing.