MicroLED industry forges ahead despite Apple exit

Reports that Apple has abandoned a huge microLED display project have failed to dent industry optimism

In a surprise U-turn, Apple has reportedly abandoned a multi-billion dollar project to use microLED displays for a new Apple Watch, triggering speculation about the future of this ground-breaking screen technology. 

Ams Osram announced in February that it was re-assessing its microLED strategy following the unexpected cancellation of a “cornerstone project”, widely believed to be the manufacture of microLED displays for a next-generation Apple Watch Ultra. The termination of such a landmark project, which was expected to launch in 2026 and signal the start of a new age of high-quality displays, has created uncertainty across the microLED sector.

However, in an exclusive interview with Smartkem, Ron Mertens, managing director of the MicroLED Industry Association, says that although the news is a setback, the outlook for the sector remains positive. “The MicroLED industry is not reliant on Apple and hopefully this will only be a bump in the road,” he says.

MicroLED screens are an area of development for Smartkem, which has made an important breakthrough in the manufacture of the displays using its TRUFLEX © electronic inks. Smartkem’s technology can be used in a range of displays and semiconductors, so is not dependent on the success of any specific technology.

But microLED screens are widely seen as a significant advance on the LCD and OLED displays used today in TVs, laptops, mobiles, tablets and wearables. The new display technology claims to offer improved durability, higher levels of brightness and excellent colour reproduction.

Mertens, who also heads display industry research company Metalgrass, says that the microLED sector benefited from Apple’s involvement, as other players have followed its lead and invested in the technology. But with over 100 companies involved in innovation and development and a variety of potential applications in the works, he thinks progress will continue.

“We hear from many other microLED developers that projects, investments and interest are still very strong. We do not see an alternative next generation display technology competing with microLEDs at this stage,” he says.

But there are important lessons to be learned from Apple’s withdrawal. Pulling out of the deal with Osram has been costly, with Osram announcing an impairment charge of $600-$900 million. The company is also reviewing the future of the manufacturing plant it built in Malaysia to make the displays. Meanwhile, some estimates say that Apple has invested up to $3bn in microLED development, including the acquisition of LuxVue in 2014.

Mertens says: “Apple’s withdrawal teaches us that it’s not just a matter of ‘throwing money’ at the problem. If we want to introduce microLEDs into large display segments such as wearables, makers will have to adopt next-gen technologies.” These include new processes for transferring the microscopic LEDs onto display backplanes – a technology developed by Smartkem – and other ways of reducing costs and improving performance.

At a recent meeting of the MicroLED Association, the issue of Apple’s reported withdrawal from the market was discussed by industry players.

One speaker pointed out that there have been conflicting reports on Apple’s strategy after Osram’s announcement. It is important to note that Apple has made no official comment on the situation, so all the reports are speculative.

Some reports suggested Apple was pulling out of microLEDs completely because of the sky-high costs, while reports from Taiwan said the company was simply looking to change suppliers. The speaker argued that the industry should learn from the experience either way and use it to make better decisions. There were calls for greater collaboration across the industry, with many small companies working together rather than relying on a single saviour. But it was pointed out that OLED was originally driven strongly by Samsung before it caught on and other brands started using it.

There was also a feeling that the notion that the first microLED display should appear on a wearable – the Apple Watch – was problematic, since it means competing with an already high-quality active-matrix OLED display offering up to 3,000 nits of brightness.

“There’s a question of how much better you can offer with the first generation microLED display,” said one speaker, adding: “one of the things that microLED companies should look at is applications with a real pull from the industry.”

Ron Mertens believes that applications such as ultra-large area displays, automotive dashboard displays, Augmented Reality headsets and transparent displays are easier to bring to market with microLED screens than wearables. He says the advantages of microLEDs for these devices offset the high cost of production.

For instance, AR headsets rely on waveguides to direct light in one direction. However, about 99% of the light is lost in the waveguide, so getting a brightness of 1,000 nits could require a light engine of up to 100,000 nits. He believes microLEDs will have an important function in AR headsets.

One view of Apple’s cancellation of the project is that OLED display technology, used in existing the Apple Watch as well as iPhones and iPads, is advancing fast enough to provide high quality displays for the Apple Watch without the high price tag of developing the new display technology.

But Mertens points to inherent advantages of microLEDs over OLEDs – high durability, extremely strong brightness, a de-coupled production process and high aperture ratio, which makes the technology ideal for some devices.

So, what should the industry do to boost its fortunes following the Apple news?

“I believe the industry should first of all realize that this is a long-term industry and that it will likely take at least five years for microLEDs to be suitable for mass market display segments such as wearables, TVs, smartphones and IT. Secondly, the industry should look at next-gen manufacturing technologies that will enable drastic cost reductions without impairing performance,” says Mertens.

Smartkem is prepared for the long-haul and believes its cutting-edge process will disrupt microLED manufacture. Exhibiting at both Touch Taiwan in April and Display Week in May, Smartkem executives will give presentations on the technology’s potential for microLED display applications. Preparations for a new era of microLED displays are well underway.

For more information on the MicroLED Industry Association, please visit: https://www.microledassociation.com/