Driven by the development of data communications and the boom of Internet’s popularity, the sweet spot of Vertical Cavity Surface Emitting Lasers (VCSELs) has evolved. It has been, until recently, in short-distance data communication, but in the last few years, with the development of the latest generation of smartphones, VCSELs have made their way into high volume consumer applications. Automotive applications, such as Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and gesture recognition, are expected to follow.
VCSEL related patent activity began in the late ‘80s, but since 2010, the decreasing IP activity related to Datacom has been balanced by the emergence of new applications like LiDAR and 3D sensing. This made the VCSEL market explode in 2017, propelling overall revenue to ~$330M, expected to reach ~$3,500M by 2023.
In its latest report, VCSELs – Technology, Industry and Market Trends, Yole Développement offers a comprehensive analysis of the main VCSEL applications, including in-depth analysis of the consumer and automotive landscapes. This is complemented now by the VCSEL patent landscape analysis realized by KnowMade, providing a comprehensive analysis of patents related to promising technologies and main players’ IP portfolios.
Pierrick Boulay, Technology & Market Analyst, Solid-State Lighting at Yole and Paul Leclaire, Patent & Technology Analyst at KnowMade had the opportunity to discuss with Jimmy Cheng, Head of Optical Devices (OD) Business Unit at San’an Integrated Circuit (Sanan IC). During this interview, they exchanged ideas and thoughts about the VCSELs industry, Sanan IC activities in this sector and the added-value of its technologies. Read on for their full discussion below.
Pierrick Boulay (PB): What is the history of VCSEL development at Sanan IC?
Jimmy Cheng (JC): With Sanan Optoelectronics, the market leader in high volume GaAs- and GaN-based LED-chip manufacturing, being our parent company, Sanan IC was founded to leverage III-V manufacturing know-how and experience to serve other large-scale vertical markets such as optical, RF, and power electronics. With in-house III-V technology platform capability, including for InP and GaAs for optical, as well as packaging, we at Sanan IC naturally see VCSELs as a key component together with other initiatives within our Optical Devices business unit, where we can leverage our capability in high volume compound semiconductor manufacturing.
A typical high-speed single VCSEL and a typical high-power VCSEL Array
PB: What is the point of differentiation of Sanan IC for VCSELs?
JC: We offer dedicated high volume 6” GaAs and 2”/4” InP compound semiconductor manufacturing lines for optical devices and foundry services, including VCSELs, to meet large scale, rapid ramp-up market demands.
PB: What is the next step by Sanan IC for VCSEL?
JC: Based on current market demands for emerging VCSEL applications, such as facial/gesture recognition, consumer 3D sensing, optical communications, cloud services, etc., Sanan IC is positioned to offer customers who need compound foundry services and customized optical products and components total solutions to meet their market needs.
Paul Leclaire: In the last 10 years we have seen many IP players from the datacom or laser printing domain enlarging their IP portfolio by filing patents related to 3D sensing including LiDAR and consumer, or other new applications. Do you think that they can take advantage of their background in the VCSEL manufacturing for datacom, etc. to penetrate and dominate the automotive or consumer market?
JC: We certainly recognize both markets as being viable and active today for VCSELs. We do have plans to serve the consumer space for proximity sensing, facial/gesture recognition, and 3D sensing which can then expand into larger arrays for illumination, projection, and higher resolution recognition. Such devices can be leveraged for LiDAR and other sensing applications for automotive with the required standards compliance.
PB: How have VCSELs evolved in the last 10 years and what can we expect in the next 10 years: package, price, performance and manufacturing?
JC: VCSEL-based multimode optical transceivers have been dominated by VCSEL applications for Datacom in the past, led by Broadcom (Avago), Finisar (ex-Honeywell) and Lumentum. However, due to the increasing data rate requirements, the trade-off is that the link distance is becoming shorter.
The overall demand for Datacom applications will decrease slowly. In terms of price, 10Gb/s pricing has come down to the floor due to both maturity of the end-product and volume. As for data rates of 25Gb/s and higher, the demand is higher than the supply, therefore pricing is on the high side, but we foresee it coming down at a faster pace in the next 3-5 years once additional players enter into this space. For cost-effectiveness, chip-on-board is the most common packaging used for this type of application.
As for consumer applications, the scale of market demand is much greater (~100x). In the past, the demand for data-heavy applications was limited, but there are a number of areas which have recently captured consumer’s attention, such as face/gesture recognition, proximity sensing, LiDAR, cosmetic, biosensor, etc. New applications continue to emerge which are being studied and developed daily. Pricing is definitely the key factor for gaining more market penetration. The barrier to entry is slightly lower, but there are still only a few suppliers who are capable of supporting high volume manufacturing with high product quality. Sanan IC is one of them, and is well positioned to offer the optimum combination of cost and performance to the market as applications and market demand grows in the next 10 years.
(Source: VCSELs – Technology, Industry and Market Trends, Yole Développement, July 2018)
PB: According to you, what are the main challenges related to the VCSEL manufacturing process and how to overcome them?
JC: The design and growth techniques of epi wafer structures are critical factors to produce high quality VCSEL products. We see the need for yield improvements, in particular in 6”, to be key. As VCSELs scale into larger sized chips from 3D sensing to LiDAR, handling thermal (heat) dissipation and heat sink issues are also important. We’ve been able to achieve high precision control of 6” epi wafer uniformity, of wet oxidation uniformity, of near-field pattern (NFP), and of intensity distributions for emitters/cavities on the chip. Volume production also requires large scale testing capability and a Quality Control (QC) infrastructure, both of which we have put in place.
PB: Could you please detail the key differences between VCSELs for Datacom and VCSELs for 3D sensing applications, including consumer and automotive?
JC: The key differences among these applications are reliability requirements, operating conditions and output power. Datacom is pushing for higher bandwidths and narrower spectrum width. On the other hand, consumer is pushing for better conversion efficiency (CE) with less driving current and less heat generation. Since most consumer applications require multiple emitters with larger die size, 6” wafers will be more cost-effective for large-scale mass production. However, this also requires tighter control of process uniformity to gain better production yield at the die level.
PB: Apple has started the use of VCSEL for 3D sensing. What do you expect from other Android players?
JC: From past experience and from what we’ve seen in the market, Android players usually implement similar technologies to those adopted by Apple within a span of 1.5 years. However, we have already seen some major mobile phone players offering similar features this year which is sooner than we have seen previously. The supply of VCSEL in the market is still very limited. What’s important is the cost of the module itself (packaged VCSEL with optics) and market reception. The current technology is only featured by flagship phones. To grow the market further, the module price needs to come down to get into the lower tier smartphones.
PB: Today, 3D sensing is only available on the front of smartphones (except Lenovo and Asus). According to you, will we see a 3D module at the rear of smartphone in a near future? What will be the typical use case? What are the challenges / requirements compared to front 3D sensing?
JC: We think this will be among the next generation feature sets to be offered by mobile phone makers. This will expand the applications into AR/VR which will motivate more users to pay for premium models.
PB: 3D sensing is today the main application of VCSEL in smartphones but gas sensing and air quality monitoring can also be done with VCSELs. When do you expect it to be integrated into smartphones? What will be the added value of such a feature in smartphones?
JC: As IOT concepts are widely discussed, different solutions have been offered. We do not see a need to add more sensing features in itself. With available IOT solutions, smartphones can connect with remote sensors and read the signal easily through wireless connectivity (Bluetooth, WiFi, NFC, cellular…). Adding more sensing features will limit the space for the screen and board, and make designs more difficult.
Jimmy Cheng is the head of our Optical Devices (OD) Business Unit at Sanan IC, which covers our VCSEL, photodiodes/detector, and laser initiatives. Jimmy oversees the Business Unit’s engineering, technology development, and marketing of our GaAs- and InP-based optical devices, intended to serve high-volume verticals, namely consumer, communications (datacom/telecom), and industrial.
As part of the Photonics, Sensing & Display division at Yole Développement (Yole), Pierrick Boulay works as Market and Technology Analyst in the fields of LED, OLED and Lighting Systems to carry out technical, economic and marketing analysis. He has experience in both LED lighting (general lighting, automotive lighting…) and OLED lighting. In the past, he has mostly worked in R&D department for LED lighting applications. Pierrick holds a master degree in Electronics (ESEO – France).
Dr. Paul Leclaire works for Knowmade in the fields of RF technologies, Wireless communications and MEMS sensors. He holds a PhD in Micro and Nanotechnology from the University of Lille (France), in partnership with IEMN in Villeneuve-d’Ascq and CRHEA-CNRS in Sophia-Antipolis (France). Paul previously worked in innovation strategy consulting firm as Consultant.
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