By Aaron Hand, Managing Editor
Thomas Edison has been widely credited with inventing the light bulb. That's not, in itself, a true fact, given that as many as 22 people have been listed as inventing the incandescent bulb before him. But Edison and his workers created the first commercially viable light bulb, filing a U.S. patent for a high-resistance lamp able to burn for hundreds of hours.
And really, that's the point, right? Not just an invention, but a commercially viable invention. High-brightness light-emitting diodes (HB-LEDs) are at a crossroads, with an industry full of really smart inventors doing wonderful things. But they are in need of concerted efforts based on standards, repeatable results and higher yields to create an industry that can tackle the potentially huge solid-state lighting (SSL) market that looms ahead. Equipment manufacturers that typically serve the semiconductor and display industries increasingly look for ways to take advantage of the SSL market potential, and they will look to automation and control solutions to help them achieve higher throughputs and lower costs.
Analysis from Strategies Unlimited (su.pennnet.com) points to a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18% from 2000 to 2009 for packaged HB-LEDs—growth that was driven in large part by LCD notebook and TV backlighting applications, and which has already led to shortages in the equipment and materials used to manufacture LEDs. HB-LED growth is expected to hit 68% this year alone, reaching more than $9 billion. The market could reach more than $18 billion by 2014.
Lighting has been a secondary growth driver, but is expected to see a greater than 45% CAGR over 2010-2014. Although lighting was the fastest-growing segment in LEDs in 2000-2009, it came from an almost non-existent start, notes Vrinda Bhandarkar, senior analyst at Strategies Unlimited.
But the LED manufacturing industry has its work cut out for it if it's going to capture the promise of a skyrocketing SSL market. Besides achieving higher brightness (which improved from 30 lumens to 113 lumens per package from 2000 to 2009), cost is a key consideration if LEDs are to replace conventional lighting sources. The price per kilolumen dropped from $302 to $14 during 2000-2009, but industry analysts expect an additional 10- to 20-fold decrease in costs over the next five years to achieve rapid penetration of solid-state lighting into commercial and residential lighting applications.
SEMI (www.semi.org), the San Jose, Calif.-based semiconductor equipment association that is helping its members take advantage of the growing LED market, recently announced the formation of an HB-LED Standards Committee. The committee has agreed to form task forces in four critical areas of LED manufacturing, including one on automation.
The objective of the Automation Task Force, according to SEMI, is to analyze and develop industry standards that allow low-cost, common hardware and software interfaces, and other means to enable HB-LED factories to effectively use multiple equipment types from multiple vendors in a highly automated and integrated fashion.
There are just a handful of HB-LED manufacturers, but each is working relatively independently, with little industry collaboration or standards. About half of the LED manufacturing capital cost is wrapped up in metal-organic chemical vapor deposition (MOCVD) equipment, according to Tom Morrow, executive vice president, Emerging Markets Group, SEMI. Large, vertically integrated manufacturers such as Cree, Nichia and Samsung are, if not building their own equipment, significantly modifying MOCVD processes and recipes that they do not share easily with the supply chain, he says. Jury-rigged and homegrown manufacturing processes are still commonplace, with relatively little focus on improving yield and lowering costs.
Wire bonding and other assembly steps are highly varied, depending on the unique optical, thermal and electrical requirements of advanced lighting applications, which also leads to higher costs and lower throughput. SEMI's new committee also has formed an Assembly Task Force, which is focused on examining industry standards related to machine vision, device orientation, handling interface, and other areas. The work here is intended to lower costs and increase throughput for assembly while still recognizing diversity of component types in a typical HB-LED manufacturing environment.