Industry News May/June 2016 Issue 1

OSRAM Upgrades LEDs

OSRAM Opto Semiconductors reports that it has increased the luminous efficacy of its white and blue high-power LEDs by 7.5% above the previous level of its products.  This has been done by optimizing epitaxial growth processes, which are now being used in all OSRAM LEDs based on UX:3 chip technology.

Fig. 1:  By making improvements to the epitaxy, OSRAM has achieved a 7.5 percent increase in luminous efficacy of white and blue LEDs compared to existing products.

Apple Introduces New 9.7-in. iPad Pro and 4-in. iPhone SE

Mobile devices have been growing ever larger, but Apple’s most recent product announcements emphasized the small – a smaller iPhone and a smaller iPad Pro.  The new iPhone SE looks like the iPhone 5S, Apple’s last 4-in. phone released in 2014, but has the same processor and graphics performance as the larger and more recent iPhone 6S, as well as a 12-Mpixel camera and 4K video capture.  The prevailing notion is that the new iPhone is designed to appeal to buyers who are reluctant to upgrade to bigger devices for reasons of convenience as well as economics.  (Apple’s pre-existing 4-in. phones continue to sell well.)  The SE starts at $399, whereas the new, larger phones start around $650.

Apple also introduced the  9.7-in. iPad Pro, a diminutive version of its 12.9-in. iPad Pro.  The new tablet weighs just under a pound and features the company’s “pro” Retina display based on oxide TFTs, which offer a high contrast ratio and low reflectivity.  It’s designed to recognize ambient light to adjust colors on-screen to display the most natural hues – a feature that has not proved universally popular thus far, but can be disabled.

Apple says it made the smaller iPad Pro to cater to those who want a powerful but more commute-friendly device.  No doubt it is also hoping to jump-start sales.  According to CNet, though the iPad still leads the tablet market, sales went down by 25% in the holiday quarter ending 2015 December, continuing 2 years of decline.1

Fig. 2:  The new 9.7-in. iPad Pros are designed to offer the power of the larger iPad Pro tablet in a smaller envelope. Image courtesy Apple.

Foxconn and Sharp Seal the Deal

Foxconn’s off-and-on again takeover deal with Sharp has been approved at last by the boards of both companies, with Foxconn set to acquire two thirds of Sharp – including its thin-film-transistor liquid-crystal-display (TFT LCD) business – for $3.5 billion.  The two companies had been poised to make the transaction earlier this year, with Sharp agreeing in February to accept a $6.2 billion bid from Foxconn.  Then Foxconn received a list of “contingent liabilities” from Sharp, said by numerous unconfirmed sources to be in the area of $2.5 billion.  At this point Foxconn put the acquisition on hold for further research, until announcing the new deal at the end of March.  Presumably the new and lower price reflects the “liabilities.”

Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics contract manufacturer – perhaps best known as the maker of Apple’s iPhones – stands to gain both IP and market share with this acquisition.  According to David Hsieh, Senior Director at market research firm IHS, Foxconn is already a leading supplier of TFT-LCDs through its subsidiaries Innolux and Century.  “The convergence of Foxconn’s business with Sharp’s TFT-LCD business and other innovative developments, such as active-matrix organic light-emitting diodes (AMOLEDs) and larger TV displays, creates a powerhouse with the largest TFT-LCD production capacity and research capabilities in the world,” says Hsieh.

For Sharp, a 100-year-old company known for its innovative display products, some kind of acquisition seemed inevitable.  Financially, the company has been struggling; it received two bank bailouts in the last 4 years.  In the final 9 months of 2015, Sharp posted a net loss of about $960 million.

Sharp is not all alone these days.  Around 2012, articles with titles like this one from CNET began proliferating: “The era of Japanese consumer-electronics giants is dead.”  The article began, “Once venerable names in consumer electronics such as Sony, Panasonic, and Sharp have been besieged by competition from rivals in the U.S., South Korea, and, increasingly, China.”2  Oft-cited reasons for this state of affairs include a failure to react nimbly to changing markets, an emphasis on building machinery vs. writing code, and sometimes a lack of innovation.

This last reason does not apply to Sharp, which has in recent years introduced a number of display innovations, including a new indium (In), gallium (Ga), and zinc (Zn) (IGZO) technology that earned it (with co-developer Semiconductor Energy Laboratory) a 2013 Display of the Year award from SID.  Hsieh offers a few ideas about why a highly innovative, well-regarded company like Sharp might fall on difficult times.

“First,” he says, “Sharp is excellent at developing new technology but comparatively slower than its competitors to bring these technologies to market.  Hsieh believes that Foxconn’s skill with the commercial aspects of the display business (it has handled its key customer Apple well for several years) may be a positive addition for Sharp.

Hsieh also mentions that competition from Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese companies who have been very fast to commercialize products and ramp up capacity put pressure on Sharp, as well as on other Japanese companies.  Last, he adds, “Sharp’s costs (due to the higher overhead in Japan) and organizational structure and culture hamper the company in terms of making fast reforms – even though they have great innovative technology development.”

Hsieh reports that Foxconn’s Innolux subsidiary is already in the process of increasing its production capacity with a Gen 8.6 TFT-LCD fab in Taiwan.  It is also building three Gen 6 low-temperature polysilicon (LTPS) TFT-LCD fabs in Taiwan and China.  With the acquisition of Sharp, currently the leading maker of high-resolution LTPS TFT LC smartphone displays, low-power oxide-TFT LC tablet displays, and a-Si based TFT LC automotive displays, Foxconn is also probably eager to invest in an AMOLED fab for flexible smartphone displays, says Hsieh.  In terms of TFT-LCD production capacity, the new company will account for 21% of the global capacity in 2016, surpassing LG Display, Samsung Display, and BOE, according to IHS’s Display Supply Demand & Equipment Tracker report.  •

M A R K E T   B R I E F

Samsung Leads in Small-Display Sales, OLEDs Lead in Growth
Samsung Display led the 9-in. and smaller display market in 2015, with 23% of all revenue, followed by Japan Display at 16%, LG Display at 13%, and Sharp at 10%, according to a recent report  from market research firm IHS.  (April 20, 2016, Small/Medium Display Market Tracker, IHS).

The company’s most recent report  noted that while overall small-to-medium display unit shipments did not grow in 2015, AMOLED display unit shipments grew 54%, and low-temperature polysilicon thin-film-transistor (LTPS TFT) LCD unit shipments rose 10% over the previous year.  As AMOLED and LTPS TFT-LCD shipments rose, amorphous-silicon (a-Si) TFT-LCD shipments declined 10% year over year in 2015.