MicroLED: will Apple’s downsizing impact IP activity?

20th May 2024
Harry Fowle

Apple essentially pioneered the microLED industry, thrusting it into the spotlight back in 2014 with the acquisition of Luxvue, a microLED startup.

However, in February 2024, Apple pulled the plug on its smartwatch microLED project despite a decade-long investment totalling $3 billion, announced by Yole Group in its latest report: MicroLED Display Intellectual Property Landscape 2024.

Eric Virey, PhD., Principal Analyst, Display, at Yole Group: “With approximately $7 billion poured into microLED development by various entities independently of the Apple ecosystem, the industry has gathered enough momentum to persist in its endeavour to establish microLED as a credible, top-tier display technology capable of rivalling OLED and LCD across multiple sectors, including automotive and augmented reality.”

Following seven years of rapid expansion, activity surrounding microLED intellectual property has stabilised since 2021 and reached a plateau. While some organisations are scaling back, others are ramping up their efforts. Chinese firms currently lead in this domain, with Korea holding a strong second position.

Yole Group is pleased to announce its MicroLED Display Intellectual Property Landscape 2024 report. This new report provides an in-depth understanding of the time evolution and countries of patent filings. It also delivers a comprehensive breakdown and emerging trends for each technology and gives a detailed analysis of key company portfolios, while analysing the competitive landscape. Which organisations are filing patents in microLED displays? What are the IP collaboration networks between microLED players? Are other companies developing similar concepts to yours? Yole Group invites you to dive deep into the microLED world.

Without a doubt, Samsung has emerged as a formidable leader in the microLED industry’s IP landscape, with prominent Chinese display manufacturers BOE and TCL CSOT also asserting significant influence. Additionally, Tianma and Vistar, the microLED-focused spin-off from OLED producer Visionox, are steadily gaining traction in terms of both quality and quantity. Meanwhile, startup PlayNitride has maintained a high level of activity throughout 2021 – 2023 and continues to compete alongside established display manufacturers.

Virey adds: “Primarily, Chinese companies tend to focus their patent coverage within the country. However, when considering the breadth of geographic coverage, startups such as Aledia and X-Display are notable. Since the 2021 edition of this report, over 370 newcomers have entered the scene, with a majority hailing from China and Korea. These newcomers are highly active and accounted for 20% of the new patent families published during the 2021 – 2023 period.”

Following the trend set by equipment makers since 2018, many material companies have entered the race in the last three years. Nearly 20 patent families have changed hands during this period, with Samsung, LG, and others acquiring patents from companies such as Intel and Ultra Display.

While some patents may lack originality, overall technology is advancing, with recent patents showing increased maturity and addressing final-stage challenges. Multi-step transfer processes, predominantly using laser and stamp methods, are becoming widespread, alongside a resurgence of fluidic self-assembly. However, the departure of Apple may signal a decline in MEMS-based transfer due to cost concerns. There’s a surge in creativity, particularly from Chinese players proposing innovative transfer methods. Improvements in chip and backplane architectures are crucial for enhancing transfer and interconnectivity, with designs focusing on breakage resilience. The MiP concept and related display architectures are gaining momentum, along with growing interest in microdrivers. Patents are also exploring transparent and flexible displays, tiling, and modular displays. However, efforts towards in-display sensors appear to be stalling temporarily.

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