Micro LED large-sized displays will move towards the home theater and high-end commercial display markets and the revenue of Micro LED large-sized display chips is estimated to reach US$54 million in 2022, according to TrendForce’s latest research. By 2026, revenue is expected to grow to US$4.5 billion with a compound annual growth rate of 204%. In addition, technical obstacles will be conquered one by one over time. The development of Micro LED large-sized displays will peak from 2026 to 2030 and the one year revenue of Micro LED chips has the opportunity to reach tens of billions of dollars.
In recent years, major global brands in various regions have released Micro/Mini LED self-emissive large-sized display products. Samsung, the world’s leading TV manufacturer, released a 146-inch TV, “The Wall,” in 2018 and continues to release 75-inch, 89-inch, 101-inch, 110-inch, 219-inch, and 292-inch large tiled wall displays at CES every year. Due to the evolution of different application scenarios and technologies, the future development trend of Micro LED large-sized displays will be in home theaters, corporate headquarters, and boutique stores. Commercial indoor and outdoor large-sized displays are mainly based on Mini LED self-emissive large-sized displays. In order to satisfy the requirements of close indoor viewing, Micro LED large-sized displays require a theater-level experience, seamless tiled display splicing, pursuit of zero borders, thin design, and competitive pricing. Thus, active matrix (AM) would be the first choice for display design.
TrendForce states, current Micro LED large-sized displays still face the dual challenges of technology and cost including Micro LED chip cost, and the three key technologies of backplane technology, driving technology, and the mass transfer process. In terms of Micro LED chip cost, due to the enormous number of chips used and the need for consistent wavelength uniformity to achieve perfect display quality, the clean room level requirements for epitaxial and chip processes, control of process conditions, and inspection and maintenance during processes are very strict, greatly increasing relative process defect rate and overall cost. In terms of mass transfer, the current mass transfer technologies used in Micro LED large-sized displays include pick-and-place technology and laser transfer technology, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. TrendForce believes that, although current Micro LED mass transfer technology is still in the product development and adjustment stage, there have been no real quantitative achievements. However, in terms of pick-and-place mass transfer equipment capacity, using 10cm2 transfer stamps to transfer 34*58µm Micro LED chips, production capacity (UPH; Unit per Hour) is approximately 7 million units. If the laser mask opening of laser mass transfer technology is 8 square millimeters, production capacity is approximately 12 million units. No matter which kind of transfer technology, the mass transfer capacity of Micro LED large-sized displays needs to reach at least a 20 million unit level of efficiency and 99.999% yield in the future to meet the conditions for mass commercialization.
Active matrix design will abet the development of Micro LED technology
In terms of backplane and drive technology, passive matrix (PM) drive design is based on a PCB backplane with a passive drive circuit structure, using MOSFET as the current switching element. Therefore, overall structure is more complex and requires a wider placement area for circuit components. In addition, when dot pitch is reduced to less than P0.625, the PCB backplane will encounter the challenges of line width and line space mass production limitations and rising cost. Thus, the current technological state of the passive matrix (PM) drive design is more suited to large-sized display applications utilizing dot pitches greater than P0.625 and equipped with a Mini LED. However, for consumer Micro LED TVs employing a dot pitch less than P0.625, active matrix (AM) drive design will become the new direction of display design. Since a TFT glass backplane with LTPS switching technology is considered mature technology by panel manufacturers, it is necessary to adjust certain portions of the manufacturing process and parameters to precisely control and drive Micro LED current.
In addition, in order to achieve seamless tiled display splicing technology, glass metallization and side wire electrode glass will become further technical challenges. As resolution moves higher and the dot pitch is reduced, the front circuit of TFT glass must be guided to the back along the side or by using through-holes. At this time, glass metallization technology becomes key. Since current glass metallization technology is still afflicted with technical bottlenecks resulting in high cost due to low yield, when these bottlenecks are resolved with future technology, the launch of mass production glass metallization will become the advantage of active matrix backplanes. Future active matrix (AM) drive design with Micro LED chips and seamless splicing technology have the opportunity to become the mainstream technology of Micro LED TV development and the key to unlocking a new wave of Micro LED large-sized display cost optimization.
High contrast and brightness Mini LED products have been developing aggressively, according to TrendForce’s investigations. Therefore, several LCD monitor brands have launched high-end LCD monitor products with Mini LED backlighting (Mini LED wafer size is defined as between 75~500µm). In 2021, the price of Mini LED-backlit LCD monitors fell between US$2,300 and US$5,000. For example, a 31.5-inch Mini LED backlit model is priced approximately 4 to 8 times that of model of the same size featuring a traditional LED backlight. This is a product that resides at the top of the pyramid. Due to high pricing and its recent introduction, market scale is relatively limited. Total shipments of LCD monitors equipped with Mini LED backlights is estimated at 51,000 units in 2021.
Looking forward to 2022, QD OLED LCD monitors and OLED LCD monitors will join the ranks of products fighting for a share of the high-end LCD monitor market. Mini LED LCD monitor shipments are forecast to reach 65,000 units at most in 2022, or an annual growth rate of 27%.
This year, Samsung was ranked first in market share in terms of Mini LED equipped LCD monitor brands. Its Mini LED LCD monitor targets e-sports players and emphasizes high cost performance, which Samsung has converted into a 58% market share. Dell focuses on professional creators as its main customer base, so its products are designed to meet highly-demanding specifications. Dell takes second place with a market share of 29%. ASUS also specializes in e-sports and comes in third with approximately 12% of the market.
In addition, in terms of the market share of Mini LED backlit LCD monitors based on size, there are currently only three product sizes on the market, 49-inch, 31.5-inch and 27-inch. Samsung has launched an exclusive 49-inch 32:9 model which accounts for the entirety of Samsung’s 58% market share. Both Dell and ASUS have launched 31.5-inch models that account for a 39% market share. Lastly, 27-inch models account for only a 3% market share.
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Despite their similar physical dimensions, notebook panels and tablet panels entail drastically different market conditions. Being two of the strongest performers in the relatively oligopolistic tablet market, Apple and Samsung collectively possess a nearly 60% market share, thereby forcing other brands to adopt a relatively passive strategy that prioritizes conserving market share over adopting emerging technologies. In contrast, the notebook computer market has remained competitive throughout the years, with market leaders HP, Lenovo, and Dell holding the absolute advantage in the commercial notebook segment. Even so, Acer and Asus still enjoy some degree of dominance in the consumer segment, not to mention the fact that Apple has carved a niche market of its own thanks to the absolute differentiation of MacBooks from the rest of the field.
With greater diversity of brands comes greater competition in the market. As such, companies must now continue to refresh their product specs and product ranges in order to stay competitive. In this regard, Mini LED products would appear to be likelier to see adoption in the notebook computer market than in the tablet market. It should be pointed out that SDC (Samsung Display Co.) holds the sole patent for OLED tablet panels – the main competitor of display solutions featuring Mini LED backlights and LCD panels. Although SDC is still figuring out its medium- and long-term strategies in the tablet market, it has been relatively aggressive in capturing share in the notebook market. For instance, SDC’s OLED notebook panels have been gradually cannibalizing market shares from LCD notebook panels since 2021. To date, more than four million notebook computers featuring Samsung’s OLED panels have been shipped, accounting for a nearly 2% market share. In addition, almost all mainstream notebook brands have started carrying their respective lineup of OLED notebooks.
The meteoric rise of OLED models in the notebook market this year can primarily be attributed to SDC, which is the sole supplier of OLED notebook panels. Whereas SDC previously allocated most of its production capacity for OLED (Rigid OLED) panels to smartphone displays, the successive ramp-up of Gen 6 production lines for OLED (Flexible OLED) panels in China has resulted in a hypercompetitive market with plummeting quotes that both placed significant downward pressure on the existing price band of rigid OLED panels and negatively affected demand for rigid OLED panels. Given that the aforementioned factors are unlikely to reverse course, SDC has therefore decided to reallocate their production capacity for rigid OLED panels from smartphone displays to notebook displays instead, since the former has continued to decline as an added value while the latter appears to have much more potential for growth.
Incidentally, SDC has spent considerable time cultivating its presence in the notebook computer market. The company formerly positioned its OLED solutions exclusively in the flagship market segment, with UHD/4K being the only resolution available on its OLED notebook panels. The adoption of these products was lukewarm at best due to OLED panels’ prohibitive prices and the very limited target audience for UHD models. Moving to 2020, however, SDC adopted a more ambitious approach to the notebook market and subsequently released a host of OLED panels featuring Full HD resolution in accordance with the mainstream market’s demands. By doing so, SDC was able to not only substantially lower its OLED notebook panel quotes, but also align its products with the enormous total addressable market of mainstream notebook consumers, in turn skyrocketing notebook brands’ willingness to adopt OLED panels.
Not only have OLED displays enjoyed a longstanding presence in the high-end smartphone and TV segments, but most consumers also generally understand that OLED panels are superior to traditional LCD panels with respect to such specifications as color saturation, contrast levels, and even physical thickness. For notebook computer brands, adopting OLED panels in their displays allows said brands to cut down on costs that would otherwise have to be spent on either educating the average consumer on popular science topics related to display technology or marketing the brands’ display solutions, as OLED displays’ superior specs are already widely known. That is why almost all mainstream brands, ranging from Asus to HP and Dell, have released OLED-equipped notebook computers, some of which even boast consumer-oriented product positions and consumer-friendly retail prices.
On the other hand, although the integration of Mini LED backlights significantly bolsters LCD panels’ traditionally weak contrast levels, significant marketing costs are required to ensure consumers understand the benefits of this new backlighting technology. While OLED solutions are already widely recognized in the market, Mini LED products’ vast marketing costs represent a significant competitive weakness against OLED products. Furthermore, manufacturing costs of display solutions that feature Mini LED backlights and LCD panel modules are about 30-50% higher than those of equivalent solutions featuring OLED panel modules due to the former’s complex design, high number of components, and limited economy of scale. Hence, high manufacturing costs are yet another obstacle preventing brands from investing in Mini LED development.
Apple recently unveiled its newest lineup of 14.2-inch and 16.2-inch MacBook Pros, which represent the company’s latest effort to extend its application of display backlights with Mini LED technology from the 12.9-inch iPad Pro to the MacBook Pro range. TrendForce’s latest investigations indicate that, in light of Apple’s foray into the high-end notebook computer market with the latest generation of MacBook Pro, annual shipment of notebook computers equipped with Mini LED backlight for 2022 will likely reach five million units, a 213% YoY increase.
It should be pointed out that, due to OLED supplier Samsung’s aggressive efforts to capture shares in the notebook market this year, annual shipment of notebooks with OLED panels for 2021 will likely reach 2.5 to 2.7 million units, which represents a penetration rate of about 1.1%. OLED displays compete directly with Mini LED displays in the high-end notebook market, meaning the adoption of Mini LED displays by non-Apple notebook manufacturers has consistently been limited. In addition, Apple waited until 4Q21 to release the new MacBook Pro models. Taking these factors into account, TrendForce is therefore revising its forecast of annual shipment of notebooks with Mini LED backlight for 2021 from 2.4 million units down to 1.65 million units.
TrendForce indicates that Apple’s product planning regarding the newest MacBook Pro lineup marks a departure from its previous strategy of having only a 13.3-inch model for the entry-level segment and a 16.2-inch model for the high-end segment, since the newest 14.2-inch MacBook is positioned as a product for the mid-range segment. Regarding pricing, the 14.2-inch model at base configuration costs US$500 more than the 13.3-inch model and US$500 less than the 16.2-inch model, assuming all aforementioned models are equipped with a 512GB SSD. Regarding technical specs, not only do the new models feature an improvement in CPU/GPU, but their backlight has also been upgraded to Mini LED technology. With these advancements in both computing power and display performance, Apple will likely be able to erase any doubts from consumers regarding the merit of the price hike.
Both of the new MacBook Pro models are equipped with a Mini LED backlight, with about 8,000-11,000 Mini LED chips divided across 2,000-2,600 local dimming zones, resulting in a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio. Mainstream Mini LED backlight-equipped notebooks from other manufacturers, on the other hand, generally feature about 240-512 local dimming zones, thereby showing Apple’s relative superiority in display technology. Furthermore, despite being a step up in terms of display size from the 13.3-inch model, the 14.4-inch model maintains a similar thin and light profile even though it contains a direct-lit Mini LED backlight, which requires additional clearance for light mixing and additional PCB substrate thickness.
Along with Apple’s continued adoption of Mini LED backlight technology, a plethora of new participants are expected to enter the Mini LED supply chain in 2022, in turn making this technology much more cost-effective and benefitting companies that are not part of Apple’s supply chain as well. Companies that are set to benefit next year include Mini LED chip suppliers (e.g., Ennostar and Osram), testing and sorting service providers (e.g., FitTech, Saultech, and YTEC), SMT suppliers (e.g., TSMT and Yenrich), backplane PCB suppliers (e.g., Zhen Ding Tech, Tripod Technology, and Apex), driver IC suppliers (e.g., Parade, TI, Novatek, and Macroblock), light source module suppliers (e.g., Radiant/ROE and GIS), and OEMs (e.g., Quanta and Foxconn).
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During Apple’s Spring Loaded event, the Cupertino company announced the upcoming release of its latest 12.9-inch iPad Pro models featuring Mini LED display technology. According to TrendForce’s latest investigations, demand for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro has already been relatively high in the niche markets.
Thus, given the thorough improvement in specs as well as the very slight price hike of merely $100 over the previous generation, TrendForce is not only revising up its shipment forecast for the 2021 version of the 12-inch iPad Pro from four million units to five million units this year, but also expecting this product to account for a 3.1% share in the global tablet market, compared to the previous forecast of 2.5%.
TrendForce analyst Max Chen indicates three key areas of observation with respect to Apple’s latest flagship tablet: technology cost, retail price, and product spec. First, in terms of technology cost, the Mini LED backlight used in the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro costs about US$85 more than the traditional edge-lit LED backlight used in the previous generation.
Second, in terms of retail price, the entry-level 128GB model of the 12.9-inch Mini LED iPad Pro retails for $1,099, which is only $100 higher than the equivalent model of the previous generation. As such, the price hike in the latest model is, for the most part, a result of the increased cost of Mini LED backlights, rather than wholly being an attempt at driving up profit margins. The modest price hike is therefore an indication of Apple’s desire to become the gold standard in the tablet market by adopting Mini LED backlight technology.
Finally, in terms of product spec, the latest 12.9-inch Mini LED iPad Pro is equipped with Apple’s high-end Liquid Retina XDR technology, which gives the tablet a max full-screen brightness of 1,000 nits, peak brightness of 1,600 nits, and contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1, with the peak brightness and contrast ratio both being firsts in the tablet industry.
Furthermore, it should be pointed out that the latest tablet is equipped with 10,384 Mini LED chips, divided into 2,596 dimming zones, giving it additional high contrast and high color saturation performance that is superior to the 31.5-inch iMac, which features 512 backlight dimming zones and is the first product to feature Apple’s XDR display technology.
With regards to Apple’s plans for 2H21, the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook models will likewise feature Mini LED backlight technology, which will become the hardware benchmark for high-end tablets and notebook computers. The release of Apple’s Mini LED-equipped tablets is expected to galvanize a growth against market headwinds for upstream and downstream companies in the Mini LED supply chain, including Mini LED chip suppliers (e.g., Ennostar), testing and sorting service suppliers (e.g., FitTech, Saultech, and YTEC), SMT suppliers (e.g., TSMT and Yenrich), backplane PCB suppliers (e.g., Zhen Ding Tech and Tripod Technology), driver IC suppliers (e.g., Parade, Novatek, and Macroblock), and light source module suppliers (e.g., Radiant/ROE and GIS).
(Cover image source: Apple.com)
For more information on reports and market data from TrendForce’s Department of Optoelectronics Research, please click here, or email Ms. Grace Li from the Sales Department at firstname.lastname@example.org