If we did not know before, now we are all aware: microLEDs for display applications is a very hot topic. 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.
Today the IP landscape reflects those challenges through the variety of players involved. Only a few companies including 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.
Apple’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.
However, it’s not enough to guaranty exclusivity and full freedom of exploitation.. 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.
MicroLED technology could be the holy grail of display companies. Therefore, it could represent an opportunity to strongly differentiate from the crowded LCD and soon-to-be-crowded OLED display industries. Recent investments by Facebook, Sharp/Foxconn, Google, Intel and Samsung confirm the growing interest and point toward a challenging but exciting future for microLEDs.
The recent report, “MicroLED Displays: Intellectual Property Landscape” released by Yole Développement (Yole) and its partner, Knowmade beginning of 2018, confirms substantial microLED IP development has been underway at Apple. In this patent landscape analysis, Apple ranks first in term of the size, strength and depth of its portfolio with more than 60 patent families.