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Korean Manufacturers Focus On White LEDs

A fall in the price of blue LEDs used in handset keypad backlights means that Korean manufacturers are looking to white LEDs and applications outside the cell phone market. Hordon Kim reports.
With Samsung Electric and LG Innotek announcing their collaboration last year, Korea s high-brightness (HB) LED industry seems to have good prospects. Both HB-LED chip and applications markets are thriving, while the market volume and the number of manufacturing players are increasing.

However, Korean manufacturers still lag behind the global leaders (headed by Nichia) in terms of base technologies, such as wafers and materials. This is a great hindrance to Korean firms international competitiveness. Although packaging technology has been improved, and competes with that in Japan, epi-processing technology still lags well behind Taiwan s. About half of the wafers in Korea are imported from Japan, Europe and Taiwan.

Investment has been heavily biased towards facilities, rather than technologies, which will impact the return on investment in the future. The dependence on imports for key manufacturing equipment is another barrier to break down. More than 80% of the HB-LED manufacturing equipment in Korea comes from Japan, while epi-growing equipment mostly arrives from Japan and Europe.

Increased competitivenessWith technological advances backed by steady mass production, however, Korean companies are becoming competitive on quality, price and delivery through techniques such as surface-mount (SMT) packaging.

Supplying local customers is key to the success of the Korean LED industry, with Samsung and LG comfortably in the top-tier of the global mobile phone manufacturing industry. Improved product quality has resulted in a series of purchasing orders for local companies. Lasemtech, for example, has secured a major contract with Samsung Electronics for its multicolor LED packages.

Lasemtech s product consists of blue, green and red LED chips in one package. Having improved heat conductance by an order of magnitude over conventional devices, the company is now supplying Samsung with 330,000 LED packages a month.

Technological development is also being furthered through partnerships with foreign companies. LED packaging company Seoul Semiconductor is collaborating with the German lighting company TridonicAtco to develop HB-LEDs for industrial and automotive illumination applications.

The two companies presented details of the Alpha Power LED at the recent Light and Building International Trade Fair in Frankfurt, Germany. Assembled in an SMT package, the Alpha Power LEDs come in various colors, including white.

While Seoul Semiconductor will manufacture the Alpha Power LED and have exclusive sales rights in Asia and the US, TridonicAtco will retain exclusive sales rights in Europe and Australia. Applications include indoor/outdoor illumination, billboard illumination, traffic-signal lights and backlighting for large-area LCD screens. Monthly production capacity is 1 million pieces, and the companies forecast that their markets will more than double every year after 2004.

The keypad of mobile handsets has been a major driving force for Korea s blue HB-LED manufacturers, and this market is expected to keep sales at Korean companies booming for the next four to five years. The local market volume of blue HB-LEDs for mobile handsets is estimated at about $178 million a year, according to industry sources.

Late last year, drastic price cuts of blue LEDs by Taiwanese suppliers forced Korean companies to go "upmarket" with more value-added products, such as those used for camera-phone flashes and backlight units.

Seoul Semiconductor has thrown down the gauntlet to industry-leading companies such as US-based Lumileds. According to its president Jeong Hoon Lee, Seoul s HB-LEDs feature 150 lm brightness, which he claims is more than a 25% improvement on Lumileds devices (Lumileds Luxeon V product offers 120 lm from a solitary source).

Meanwhile, Photron makes HB-LED lamps emitting more than 10 cd. Featuring a wide viewing angle of more than 40º, the lamps have various applications, and shipments are destined for the US. By employing SMT packaging, the need for hole-taping and lead-cutting processes has been reduced, improving productivity.

Illumination is one of the future applications markets targeted by Korean companies. EST, for example, is to widen its market share by replacing incandescent and fluorescent lamps with LEDs. The company is beefing up exports to the US. Plans are in the pipeline to set up an offshore factory in China late this year or early next year, according to the company.

While the falling prices of blue LEDs continue to shrink margins from mobile phone keypad backlights, companies are focusing more on applications of white HB-LEDs in the phone s LCD backlight unit and camera flash, as well as outdoor billboards and illuminations. Samsung Electro-Mechanics has already made a move into this technology and is shifting away from blue and seven-color LEDs.

At the same time, LG Innotek is doubling its production of white HB-LEDs to 100 million pieces a month - the same as Samsung Electro-Mechanics. LG Innotek s planning manager Y S Jeong noted: "While progressing toward highly reliable high-brightness LEDs, we are also cashing in on the development of high-brightness UV LEDs [at] two local R&D institutes."

From blue to whiteAs the applications market of mobile phones continues to grow domestically and abroad, some of the HB-LED manufacturers are switching into camera modules to penetrate the market further. Companies have already begun to diversify into flash and side-view white HB-LEDs, adopting flexible manufacturing to deliver customers requirements.

Stiff competition for mobile phone HB-LEDs is also forcing Korean companies to diversify products and to focus on niche markets. Lasemtech s move to a new multicolor HB-LED package appears to have paid off, and many other players are accepting small orders for diverse specifications.

Successful companies are striving to ramp up LED production to generate a stable supply. Lasemtech is now planning to move into mass production as it receives orders from Pantech & Curitel and Appeal Telecom (both Korea-based). Lasemtech president B W Yoon said: "We will expand the monthly production capacity from 9 million to 15 million multicolor LED packages in a few months."

Diversifying productionOther companies, such as SSI Semiconductor, are becoming specialist suppliers of all kinds of mobile handset parts and components, rather than simply concentrating on HB-LEDs. SSI has diversified its product range to include power amplifiers, LCD-driving ICs and CMOS camera modules.

At the cutting edge for both technology and price, Korean companies have also begun to target the local automotive market, which has been dominated by global players such as Osram, Agilent and Nichia. It is estimated that Korea s automotive HB-LED market will reach $726 million in the near future.

Samsung Electro-Mechanics is to launch white HB-LEDs for automotive dashboards during the second half of this year. Seoul Semiconductor also expects 2004 to mark the turning point for this market. Luxpia, meanwhile, is spurring the development of backlighting LEDs for car navigation displays.

Chang Woo Engineering s Color Ring and Color Gen LED illumination systems feature remote-controlled LED lamp colors and a low power consumption of 5-7 W. A combination of LEDs and fiber-optic systems will be made available during the second half of this year.

Other Korean manufacturers are following suit. Luxpia has been focusing on white HB-LEDs since early this year. More than 70% of its 2004 sales are expected to come from its LCD backlight unit, which features RGB-based white HB-LED packages. Tripled production capacity, meanwhile, should boost this year s sales of backlight units based on white HB-LEDs at Lumimicron.


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