TAOYUAN, Taiwan – Apple has partnered with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. to develop ultra-advanced display technology at a secret facility in Taiwan, Nikkei Asia learned.
The California technology giant is planning to develop micro-OLED screens – a radically different type of screen built directly on chipboards – with the ultimate goal of using the new technology in its upcoming augmented reality devices, sources said in the case.
Apple is partnering with its longtime chip provider TSMC because micro-OLED screens are not built on glass substrates like the standard LCD screens in smartphones and TVs, or OLED screens used in high-end smartphones. Instead, these new monitors are built directly on wafers ̵
The project represents a further elaboration of Apple’s relationship with TSMC, the sole supplier of iPhone processors, although the US technology giant is working to reduce its reliance on other major suppliers. The Taiwanese chipmaking giant is also helping Apple build its proprietary core processors for Mac computers.
The micro OLED project is now in the trial production stage, sources said, and it will take several years to achieve mass production. The screens under development are less than 1 inch in size.
“Panelists are good at making screens bigger and bigger, but when it comes to thin and light devices like AR glasses, you need a very small screen,” said a source who has direct information about the micro OLED R&D project. “Apple is partnering with TSMC to develop the technology because the chipmaker’s expertise makes things extremely small and good, while Apple also leverages panel experts’ knowledge of display technologies.”
Some parts of the planned microdisplay production will use TSMC’s existing chip production equipment and processes, sources said.
The project is one of two carried out at Apple’s secret laboratories in the Longtan district of the northern Taiwanese city of Taoyuan. In addition to micro OLED screens, the company also works with micro LED technology, and has trial production lines in place for both types, Nikkei has learned.
Apple’s complex in Longtan Science Park consists of several unmarked white buildings – there is no company logo or address on the outside, and only a very faint apple symbol could be seen in the lobby, Nikkei journalists saw on a recent visit. Apple registered a company in the park in 2014, and expanded it in 2020. The complex is within walking distance of TSMC’s advanced chip packaging and testing facility, which is located in the same science park.
Apple has hired dozens of veterans from Taiwanese display maker AU Optoelectronics to work on the micro-OLED project, one of the sources familiar with the situation said, as well as display experts from Japan and elsewhere. Everyone who registers to work with the program must sign a strict confidentiality agreement that prohibits them from even meeting with friends or acquaintances who work in the technology industry, the source added.
The American technology giant on Monday launched a Taiwanese job platform that is looking for applicants to work in Longtan who have expertise in the operation of OLED vacuum evaporation equipment, packaging and test equipment and measuring equipment. This is the first time Apple has hired production-related employees in Taiwan via public platforms.
Apple is not the only company pursuing this new line of display technology. Sony Semiconductor Solutions, a longtime Apple supplier, says they have developed micro OLED display technology that can be used in AR and VR glasses, as well as for other industrial and consumer products.
China’s display national champion BOE Technology Group has teamed up with Yunnan North OLiGHTEK Opto-Electronic Technology and US-based Kopin, a provider of ultra-small screen technology, for a joint venture to develop micro OLED displays for portable devices and AR devices.
Apple’s second display project on the Longtan campus focuses on micro-LED technology, which the company hopes to eventually use in Apple Watch, iPads and MacBooks. Apple has partnered with Taiwanese LED company Epistar to develop the technology.
Like micro-OLEDs, the micro-LED project also involves some chip production technology. The components are 100 times smaller than those used in LED lighting products, and they do not need backlight modules such as traditional LEDs and LCD screens, which means that the screen can be much thinner. Micro LEDs also provide high color contrast and can be used to create curved or collapsible screens, such as OLED screens.
Samsung, Apple, BOE Technology and China’s largest LED manufacturer San’an Optoelectronics are all working to make the technology commercially viable, but finding a way to mass transfer millions of small components to a surface accurately and affordably remains a major obstacle.
Apple’s pressure to develop these new display technologies is part of the effort to reduce reliance on Samsung Electronics, the world leader in OLEDs – and the US company’s biggest rival in the smartphone arena. The South Korean company is Apple’s main supplier of groundbreaking screens, which are now seen as a must-have feature for advanced smartphones. OLED screens are the second most expensive component in the iPhone 12 series, after the Qualcomm 5G modem.
“Not all technologies that Apple develops will be introduced or actually used in their products, but the company can strategically use patents on its own patent portfolio and technology benefits to gain more control over the next generation of technologies,” said one of the people.
TSMC declined to comment on this story. Apple did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Eric Chiou, a veteran display analyst at research firm TrendForce, told Nikkei that Micro OLED may be the most ideal display technology for next-generation AR monitors, as it can make a monitor ultra small, reducing the device’s overall weight but also delivering high resolution . “Technology is a mixture of knowledge of semiconductors and display manufacturers,” said Chiou.
“However, it is currently in its early stages of development. It is unlikely that Apple could immediately introduce its proprietary technology into its first AR products in one to two years,” the analyst added.