For many companies, interest in microLEDs lies beyond just the ability to offer the latest display technology. The strategic implications for microLEDs are that the legacy display makers could simply disappear out of the supply chain. As the new technology brings together the worlds of silicon and III-V manufacturing, new players, from start-ups to behemoths, are threatening the display world.
The lack of microLED process maturity and the proliferation of technology paths hinders the development of high volume manufacturing tools and the development of the supply chain. This complexity, however, is a welcome barrier to entry for companies such as Apple or Samsung. Both have the financial and technological strength to develop end-to-end solutions internally and acquire missing technology building blocks as needed.
At the end of the day, as microLED development is an engineering problem, money and funding are going to be the key to the game. Even more so as economics are driving die sizes below 5µm, for we are considering the commodity-centric mobile and consumer market, which creates an additional push toward adoption of larger diameter substrates. Going from 6” to 8” is especially desirable as it grants access to battle-tested, retrofitted semiconductor equipment. This also increases the appeal for GaN-on-Si platforms that are readily available in 8” and already looking toward 12”, as we thoroughly describe and analyze in our latest “MicroLED Displays – Market, Industry and Technology Trends 2020” report.
In this context, Aledia appears to be reaching a big milestone. Having recently raised close to $100M and working on GaN-on-Si platforms since its beginning, we figured it was a prominent player to interview. Dr. Eric Virey and Dr. Zine Bouhamri reached out to ask Dr. Giorgio Anania, CEO and Chairman of Aledia, for his view on the industry in general. He kindly answers Yole’s questions and shares insights below.
Yole Développement (YD): Would you kindly introduce yourself and Aledia to our readers?
Giorgio Anania (GA): Aledia is a company based in Grenoble, France, which was spun out of the CEA French national labs in 2012. It focusses on microLEDs for displays using its proprietary nanowire-on-silicon “3D” technology.
YD: What are your key strengths and differentiating elements in a microLED industry where dozens of players are involved?
GA: Pretty much all microLED players make 2D microLEDs based on planar GaN deposited 4” or 6” sapphire substrates, as with traditional LEDs for lighting. Aledia uses 3D nanowires on large-area silicon. While nanowires on large-area silicon are less advanced in some areas than 2D microLEDs they have several advantages. Unlike 2D microLEDs, their efficiency does not drop as the chip size is reduced, one simply has fewer wires. Having several wires per subpixel means there is internal redundancy, which improves display yields versus using 2D microLEDs. Being on 200mm or 300mm silicon has great advantages in manufacturability, in cost, and in the ability to use existing microelectronics foundries. And the integration of electronics is much easier than with 2D microLEDs. On the other hand they are less efficient when larger miniLED chips are needed, as used for TVs. Nanowire microLEDs are also able to emit in all visible colors on a single chip, allowing monolithic RGB chips, a big advantage especially in microdisplays.
YD: Congratulations on your recent fundraising. In such uncertain pandemic times, it is quite unusual. Have you felt a delay or at least an impact on the fundraising or your client/customer partnerships with covid-19? Has it changed your short- to mid-term plans?
GA: We have had four months delay on the financing indirectly due to covid, with investors busy on their own anti-covid plans, but this has been minor. The covid delays have been mainly on the internal execution. Our engineers have been affected, equipment uptimes have suffered as tools go down and maintenance times are much lengthened owing to repair staff being in lockdown mode, as our subcontractors have also been under lockdown and delivering more slowly, et cetera. Our plans have not changed but, as can be expected, progress is a bit slower than planned. Apart from this, our medium-term plans have not changed – end-user demand continues to be very strong.
YD: Speaking of plans, your recent fundraising will allow you to build a fab in France. Bringing back some display manufacturing to Europe is quite unusual considering that the whole display industry is in Asia. But do you plan on manufacturing full displays? What is your position in the supply and value chain?
GA: With augmented reality (AR) microdisplays we are a display company. In other words we develop and will sell the entire microdisplay with the integrated driving electronics backplane to AR glass manufacturers. For larger displays, where chips need to be transferred onto a Thin Film Transistor (TFT) backplane, we supply wafers of pixel chips to the display manufacturers – in other words we are a pixel-wafer supplier. With our partner Intel we also develop the chip-transfer technology that is needed to assemble such displays. For very large displays our Smartpixel technology, where the electronics are inside each pixel chip instead of on the TFT backplane, can eliminate the TFT backplane and enable new display form factors.
YD: In our newly released report, we dive deep into current and future equipment and manufacturing challenges and strategies. From the early days up until now, apart from chip design, transfer and assembly has always been seen as the road block for microLED display manufacturing. How do you propose to address this issue?
GA: For all major applications of displays except for TVs and video walls, such as phones, laptops, tablets and monitors, the display economics requires that microLED chips be less than 5 microns in size. Otherwise, the economics is not consistent with the price requirements in the volume markets. Chip-transfer technology must therefore be able to transfer chips that are under 5 microns in size in extremely high yield and accuracy. That is what we are developing. We are still optimizing transfer yields. The higher they are the better the economics of assembling a display.
YD: Speaking of Smartpixels, you are leading a European Commission project on that. Can you share more about the expected outputs and the partners that accompany you on this path?
GA: The output is scaled-up manufacturing of Smartpixels on 300mm silicon wafers. The majority of the effort is an internal one.
YD: We discuss in our report the bigger stakes at play. It is not so much about making microLED displays but more about escaping the shackles of the legacy display industry, led by a few bigger players like Samsung, BOE, LG and so on. The display is one of the most valuable pieces of consumer electronics equipment. So they have invested billions in their TFT fabs and do not want them to go to waste. But larger OEMs such as Apple would surely want to bypass these and disrupt the display industry, hence their long-standing effort on microLEDs without TFTs. How do you see yourself interacting with all these industry behemoths?
GA: By phone, since we cannot visit them. More seriously, the market is sufficiently large to accommodate many relationships and players, each with different needs. We try to serve a number of these needs. Some are interested in leveraging their existing TFT plants and can use microLEDs to improve such displays. Some want to break the TFT oligopoly and replace TFTs with flexible backplanes, and our Smartpixel technology allows that. Many of the behemoths are focusing on AR as the next huge device platform. They need improved and much brighter, more efficient microdisplays. We are developing microLED displays for this segment with some of the larger players. Each application is very large, but each is also very difficult, so there will be some mortality along the way.
YD: Now, about the market. We all agree the display market is very substantial. However, microLEDs are jumping into a well-established commodity market where the competition from LCDs and OLED is a moving target. We consider microLED displays to add real value for the differentiation they bring compared to the incumbent technologies in the fields of AR and automotive. But how do you feel about the differentiation your microLEDs can bring in regular consumer electronics items such as smartwatches, televisions or smartphones?
GA: Every major display company today agrees that microLEDs are the next big display technology, and will impact pretty much all the display product segments from large TVs down to phones, down to small AR microdisplays. In fact, TVs may be one of the early applications. What people do not know is if it will take two years or five, and whose technology will win out, but there is little disagreement on the trend. Aledia is a player, but there are many others, including at several of the hyper-market-capitalization players, with essentially infinite means. Demand is huge, but so is competition. Aledia is now well enough financed to turn some of the prototypes into commercial products. But in displays the road from demonstrators to commercial sales has always been a long one and will continue to be risky – but with large rewards in case of success. With our financing Aledia has a real chance at getting our products across the finish line.
YD: When can we expect to buy the first products using your chips?
GA: We expect the first products will start to sell in moderate volumes in 2022 and in high volumes in 2023, assuming of course no further covid disruptions.
Dr. Giorgio Anania has spent 38 years in senior management at high-technology companies, from start-up ventures to multinational public companies, has led three successful IPOs, and raised over $1.3 billion in public and private financing. He has run companies headquartered in the US, UK, France and Germany, including with major operations in China. He is Chairman and CEO at Aledia, a developer of an entirely new technology for making displays using LEDs which promises disruptive performance; he is Vice President of Photonics21, a European public-private Partnership managing €800M in EC money in photonics; and is Chairman of Sicoya, a Germany-based manufacturer of silicon-photonics optical components for data centers. Previously Giorgio was CEO of Bookham, now renamed Oclaro, number 2 company worldwide in telecom lasers, which he grew from a start-up into a $250 million/year NASDAQ-listed and LSE-listed public company with over 2500 employees. Giorgio has an M.A. degree in physics from Oxford University and a Ph.D. in thermonuclear fusion from Princeton University.
Eric Virey, PhD, serves as a Principal Display Market and Technologies Analyst within the Photonics, Sensing & Display division at Yole Développement (Yole).
Eric has spoken in more than 50 industry conferences over the last 10 years and has been interviewed or quoted in multiple media including: The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, Bloomberg, Financial Review, Forbes, Technology Review, etc.
Prior to joining Yole, Eric held R&D, engineering, manufacturing and marketing positions with Fortune 500 Company Saint-Gobain in France and the United States. Eric received a PhD in Optoelectronics from the National Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble. He is based in Portland, OR.
As a Technology & Market Analyst, Displays, Zine Bouhamri, PhD is a member of the Photonics, Sensing & Display division at Yole Développement (Yole).
Zine manages the day to day production of technology & market reports, as well as custom consulting projects. He is also deeply involved in the business development of the Displays unit activities at Yole.
Previously, Zine was in charge of numerous R&D programs at Aledia. During more than three years, he developed strong technical expertise as well as a detailed understanding of the display industry.
Zine is author and co-author of several papers and patents.
Zine Bouhamri holds an Electronics Engineering Degree from the National Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble (France), one from the Politecnico di Torino (Italy), and a Ph.D. in RF & Optoelectronics from Grenoble University (France).
MicroLED Displays – Market, Industry and Technology Trends 2020
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