Apple opens secret laboratory in Taiwan to develop new screens

Apple opened a production laboratory in northern Taiwan where engineers are developing new display technologies, according to people with knowledge of the facility.

The Apple building in Longtan has at least 50 engineers and other workers creating new screens for devices including iPhones and iPads, the people said, asking not to be identified because the details aren’t public. Apple has recruited from local display maker AU Optronics Corp. and Qualcomm Inc., which used to own the building, the people said.

Kristin Huguet, a spokeswoman for Apple in Cupertino, California, declined to comment.

Apple began operating the lab this year as it aims to make products thinner, lighter, brighter and more energy-efficient. Engineers are developing more-advanced versions of the liquid-crystal displays currently used in iPhones, iPads and Mac personal computers, the people said. Apple also is keen to move to organic light-emitting diodes, which are even thinner and don’t require a backlight, they said.
Making its iPhones and iPads slimmer and longer-lasting with each generation has been a hallmark of Apple, helping drive $178 billion in annual sales from the two product categories.

By working directly on the development of display technologies, Apple can reduce reliance on the technology developed by suppliers such as Samsung Electronics Co., LG Display Co., Sharp Corp. and Japan Display Inc. Instead, the company can develop the production processes in-house and outsource to smaller manufacturers such as Taiwan’s AU Optronics or Innolux Corp.

Shares of AU Optronics surged 7 percent, the most in four months, in Taipei and Innolux jumped 2.6 percent. Japan Display dropped 3.9 percent in Tokyo to the lowest in more than two months, and Sharp fell 1.6 percent.

Apple does the bulk of its research at its headquarters in Cupertino and outsources the manufacturing of almost all devices and components to suppliers such as Foxconn Technology Group and Japan Display. The iPhone maker also employs scientists and engineers globally to develop materials and manufacturing technologies.

Apple continues looking for engineers to work at its display panel facilities, according tojob postings on LinkedIn Corp.’s website.
Tucked in a corner of Longtan Science Park, between a forest and the building site for a new biotechnology factory, the structure shows no outward indications of belonging to the world’s most valuable company. Fifty kilometers (31 miles) from downtown Taipei and within an hour’s drive of the Foxconn headquarters, the white-tiled factory displays no corporate signage, a stark contrast to neighboring plants emblazoned with 3-foot-tall logos for Leotek Electronics Corp., Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. and AU Optronics.


Qualcomm Displays
Records from the Hsinchu Science Park management office, which manages the Longtan facility, show Apple moved into the factory in April and that Qualcomm Panel Manufacturing Ltd. had occupied the site from 2008.

Records from the economics ministry show Apple last amended its Taiwan registration in October. The form now shows the Longtan address, changed from an earlier listing in downtown Taipei, as the headquarters of Taiwan Apple LLC. The site was where Qualcomm tried to develop its own displays called Mirasol.

Samsung, which makes both components and consumer devices, is among the few suppliers currently offering smartphones with OLED displays, which typically are more expensive to produce than LCDs.

On Monday, a small group of workers with Apple ID badges around their necks stepped off the property for a smoking break amid the hum of industrial filters. They declined to comment on the building’s purpose and what they’re working on.

MEMS the word

Mirasol Yole

Mirasol 2 Yole

Mirasol 3 YoleSource: Qualcomm

Qualcomm Mirasol displays used an entirely different technology compared to conventional backlit LCDs (which create an image by electrically positioning liquid crystals and then shining visible light through it) or the more recent OLED (which creates an illuminated image from diodes, requiring no backlight and creating deeper blacks).

Qualcomm’s IMOD technology uses an array of microscopic mirror-like elements that can reflect light of a specific color. Like OLED, it doesn’t require a backlight. It also only uses energy when being being switched on or off; once an image is created, it requires no power to refresh or retain it, similar to E-Ink displays used in e-readers like the Kindle.
Quallcomm yoleSource: CNET

Also like E-Ink, IMOD technology maintains full visibility in direct sunlight, unlike LCDs and OLED. But rather than moving around dye like an E-Ink screen, IMOD uses tiny moving mirror-like elements, referred to as being a micro-electro-mechanical system, or MEMS (also known as a “micro-machine“). The downside to IMOD has historically been that it reproduces flat, unsaturated colors, a problem that may be possible to fix.

CNN reported in 2007 that the technology was initially conceptualized by electrical engineer Mark Miles, inspired by Blue Morpho butterflies, which reflect light using nanoscale structures on their wings that cause incoming light waves to interfere with one another, reflecting only specific wavelengths, resulting in the appearance of an iridescent, brilliant color.

Qualcomm acquired Iridigm, Miles’ IMOD company, in 2004 for $170 million, hoping to create a market for the IMOD technology it branded Mirasol. However, Qualcomm hasn’t been able to find a one. A decade later, the company introduced a Toq smartwatch with an IMOD screen, but the device flopped.

In reviewing the device, CNET noted that “Qualcomm’s Mirasol screen on the Toq smartwatch looks brighter in sunlight than other display technology.”

This summer, Qualcomm took a $142 million charge on its Mirasol display business, after rumors from a year ago indicated the company’s Qualcomm MEMS subsidiary would be selling off its Longtan Mirasol panel plant to Apple’s primary chip fab TSMC.

Quallcomm 2Source: Qualcomm

That indicates the possibility that Apple may have acquired more than just the facility, and instead has some interest in using Mirasol IMOD technology, which has long been regarded as a offering an advanced technological breakthrough in enabling a new class of low-power displays for use in phones, tablets or wearables. The reported Qualcomm hires may reinforce this idea.

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Source: Qualcomm