Tech-Talks Bregenz | Interview | Nov 23, 2015

Tech-Talks BREGENZ - Andreas Weisl, SSC Europe, Vice-President

Seoul Semiconductor has more than 20 years of experience in semiconductor manufacturing and invests more than 10% of its annual revenue in LED research and development. On average, Seoul Semiconductor applies for more than 600 patents every year. Currently, the company holds more than 10,000 LED patents, including patents in core LED technologies such as Acrich, Acrich MJT, nPola, TV Direct Backlight Technology, UV, and many more. Seoul Semiconductor’s extensive patent portfolio in LED technology includes epitaxial growth, fabrication, packaging, and system application of LED technology. LED professional talked with Andreas Weisl, Vice-President of Seoul Semiconductor Europe GmbH about their business, technologies and solutions.

LED professional: Thank you very much for visiting Bregenz for this Tech-Talk. Even though Seoul Semiconductor (SSC) is a well known company in the field of SSL, could you please share a few important milestones of the company?

Mr. Weisl: SSC’s history can be divided into roughly three phases since our CEO, Mr. Lee, assumed office. The years 1992 to 2001 were the years spent establishing the company in the Korean marketplace. By the end of this period, SSC had reached the number 1 LED manufacturer position in Korea. The years between 2002 and 2013 saw SSC developing towards becoming a global player in the lighting field. The current phase, from 2014 to 2019, is, and will be dominated by the goal of becoming the world market leader as an LED component manufacturer and supplier.

Currently, SSC is number 6 in the global LED manufacturers’ ranking with a revenue of USD 940M last year. If we exclude the captive market revenues from the top 5 LED suppliers, SSC is #2 for white LED products. With more than 10,000 listed patents and cross license agreements with global key players, in the areas of design, material and manufacturing methods, SSC was the only LED component manufacturer to be selected in the 2012 and 2013 Semiconductor Manufacturing Patent Power Ranking by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The cooperations with the Solid State Lighting and Energy Center (SSLEC) of the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and with SETI, a company working in the field of UV LEDs and which our subsidiary Seoul Viosys has recently secured the executive management share from, are important strategic partnerships for future developments. Prof. Nakamura from the UCSB and SSC have been engaged in joint R&D for over 10 years.

LED professional: Your total production packaging capacity is 1.8B pieces per month which is a huge number but a necessity for the economy of scale. On the other hand the price reductions over the past years have been tremendous as well, haven’t they?

Mr. Weisl: Due to market shifts there are overcapacities available in production. But the massive price-reduction was not expected in such huge dimensions. A main driver for the price degradations is caused by governmental subsidies in Asia. We are well prepared for the upcoming market consolidation. Factors such as cost optimization, a lean organization and especially new competitive technologies will help us to overcome these tough times. For the further development of the company our goal is to at least double our market share from today’s 6-8% to 15% within the next years.

LED professional: Heavy investments are necessary in production to reach the market goals. On the other hand, you’re confronted with declining prices. Are there other instruments that can help the industry and SSC in this situation?

Mr. Weisl: The IP portfolio is an important factor for further growth. More and more we see that LED chip producers - tier 1 manufacturers - are approaching module or lamp manufacturers when they use LEDs which are not free-to-operate from the patent point of view. For example, a leading US LED manufacturer went to court against a big US luminary manufacturer last year due to a patent infringement of their Asian LED supplier. We also filed a patent infringement lawsuit against a U.S. manufacturer one year ago. In July, the court finally issued the judgment in favor of Seoul Semiconductor. So, in fact, the companies who invested huge amounts of money in the development of LEDs are now starting to protect themselves by approaching tier 3 manufacturers, for example. IP-safety is a key topic for the years to come and a strong IP portfolio is getting more and more important. SSC invests around 10% of the annual revenue into global R&D activities.

LED professional: One technology which is always a topic of discussion is GaN-on-GaN technology or nPola technology as SSC calls it. What can you tell us about the nPola technology?

Mr. Weisl: The key point is that this technology can increase the light output by a factor of 5-10 using the same chip size as for conventional LEDs and still keep the high efficacy. In other words, we could reduce the chip size by a factor of 5-10 and generate the same light output as from conventional LEDs. At the moment the substrate is still expensive and that’s why we didn’t launch a product for mass applications yet. The technology shows much better droop behaviour and is ideally applicable for higher currents. Applications for spotlighting, wave-guides or automotive lighting would gain a lot from it. In general, the manufacturing costs will have to come down. The nPola technology is a future trend, especially for high-performance light sources, and that’s why SSC is also doing research in this area.

LED professional: But that’s not for mass production, is it?

Mr. Weisl: We do see three different strategic options for further developments in Solid- State-Lighting. Option 1 is the cost strategy, option 2 the elimination of additional drivers and option 3 the quality strategy. The nPola technology fits into option 3 for higher CRIs and “better white colors”. But also for combined technologies for UV light sources. In a second step it will also fit to option 1 because 5-10 times more light output with the same chip size as conventional LEDs will result in cost reductions as soon as substrate costs decrease.

LED professional: How does SSC strategically position itself in the value chain?

Mr. Weisl: We are a producer of chips, packaged LEDs and LED modules. We don’t sell light engines but mainly customized modules. Our customers still have to look after the right optical solution and the thermal design by themselves. We are decidedly not making moves towards integration for retrofits and luminaires and competing with our clients. SSC is one of only two LED manufacturers who are sticking to the pure component and module business. We see this as a necessity in order to make our clients successful by supporting them on an engineering level. This was especially needed with our Acrich product line.

LED professional: How does this support work?

Mr. Weisl: We have built up so-called small R&D labs in Munich, Shanghai, Tokyo and Atlanta. These labs support application and design - especially for custom-specific product designs. They are equipped with modern measurement, design and layout tools which can be used for Acrich or DC system developments. Originally these labs where driven by the support demand of the Acrich product segment.

LED professional: Let’s look at the market portfolio. What are the different market segments that SSC delivers its products to?

Mr. Weisl: We have a strong presence in three major segments; namely Lighting, BLU & Mobile, and Automotive. Actually, the BLU & Mobile part covers roughly 50% of our business while Lighting and Automotive are the strong growing areas. In Europe only the Lighting and Automotive segments are relevant markets. The lighting portfolio covers high and mid-power, COBs, high voltage and AC technologies. The AC business has been growing significantly and already represents one fourth of our lighting business.

In the automotive market, we also focus on white LEDs and offer products specially developed for automotive applications. Although our automotive business is still second to the lighting business in terms of revenue distribution, we see high potential in this segment. Currently in Europe, automotive accounts for 20% of our revenue with a strong indication that its share will increase in the future. Nevertheless, the main part of our business will still be dedicated to general lighting, which is forecasted to have the biggest growth rate. Globally, LED based luminaires count for about 5% and are expected to have very high growth rates that will increase them to 70% within the next few years.

The global automotive lighting market is about 1.6B USD and the exterior lighting segment is about 1B USD. It has surpassed the interior part since 2013. The daytime running lights and the headlamps will count for about 50% of the exterior part during the next years. That’s exactly the domain on which SSC is focusing. An interesting trend is the fact that LEDs for automotive lighting applications are more and more differentiated from the general lighting products. So very specific automotive LED solutions are necessary to fulfill the requirements of the automotive market.

LED professional: What are the core technologies at SSC now?

Mr. Weisl: Latest key technologies are our Acrich technology for AC & DC solutions and the NewGen, which is our package-less LED technology, as well as the module business including smart lighting capabilities.

LED professional: If we take a closer look at the Acrich technology, what are the latest developments?

Mr. Weisl: The Acrich3 IC solution is based on a four-step bank switch technology which increases the forward voltage in steps, allowing for a quicker turn-on time and a better match of the current to the voltage wave form. The base-technology are MJT chips but combined with an intelligent driving-IC for those 4 channels. This solution generates non-noticeable flicker and is suitable for most general lighting applications, even for street lighting. For very sensitive applications, parallel capacitors can smooth out the flickering even more. For dimming applications, the Acrich3 driver IC has an additional 0-2 V analog dimming input and an additional power source for external sensors.

With this approach, systems from 4 to 200 watts can be realized, reaching power-factor values of over 0.97, which also stays nearly constant over the full dimming range. The system’s performance ranges up to 130 lm/W on a lighting system level. But taking into consideration that the driver electronics is responsible for about 50% of all light source failures, the Acrich3 system is very reliable since it has no driver at all. Acrich3 was introduced to the market at the end of last year but developments are continuing for AC LED technologies. A DoE report especially highlighted the necessity of going in these directions when looking at future trends.

LED professional: What about Acrich3 and smart lighting technologies?

Mr. Weisl: For Bluetooth, ZigBee and WiFi, there are special interface modules for Acrich3, including sensors, available. The problem is that there is no standard dominating the field yet but we’re offering networking solutions for all major controls. Our design support helps to develop and create so-called reference designs and then it’s up to the client if he’s going to produce and source the module himself or if SSC delivers the module through one of our certified production suppliers, guaranteeing SSC quality performance. For the smart lighting technologies, as well as the production partners, we can access a high-quality standard process line and partners.

LED professional: Is this a kind of a new business approach for the lighting industry?

Mr. Weisl: Price degradations, shorter development cycles, short time-to-market periods and high flexibility does make the business quite difficult. The luminary companies have built up SSL knowledge in-house but they are trying to focus on their core-competences. Solid partners, such as SSC have to ensure IP-save, high-quality and reliable solutions for the OEMs.

LED professional: SSC is exhibiting at the LpS 2015. What can visitors to Bregenz expect to see from your portfolio?

Mr. Weisl: This year we will have a double role. First of all, we’ll have a booth in the exhibition area, and secondly we will be presenting the Acrich-based luminaires from our “Out of Bounds Design Contest” in the entry area. In this case our focus will positively be on Acrich.

At our booth, besides showing the Acrich products for indoor and outdoor lighting, we will also be presenting the smart lighting capabilities of this technology. In addition to that, we will be showing components for outdoor lighting and a preview of products that will be launched soon. Products like the NewGen, our package-less LED. In the foyer visitors will be able to see what is possible with Acrich when they look at the 17 luminaire prototypes designed by students of the University of Applied Sciences Munich. In a four month long study project, the goal was to develop luminaires that clearly show the advantages of Acrich technology. The project was a complete success and the variety of high quality lighting designs was extremely impressive. As part of the exhibition, we are also taking part in the “Design meets Technology” day. The official award presentation ceremony will also be a part of the program as will be viewing the exhibits. Visitors will have a chance to talk directly with the students about their creations and our staff will be on-hand to explain the technical details.

LED professional: What was your motivation to initiate the Design Contest with Prof. Peter Naumann and the University of Applied Sciences Munich?

Mr. Weisl: Some customers are still sceptical of AC driven LED solutions and overlook the potential benefits that this new technology can offer them. They often do not realize that this technology has been further developed over the past one to two years and that a lot of progress has been made. After many years of development and optimization, AC LED solutions are ready for general lighting both from a technical point of view as well as a design point of view. The decisive advantage is the absence of a converter. Complete new design possibilities open up because the converter no longer has to be considered during the design process. There have also been a lot of improvements on the technical side.

By engaging with young, creative students who have no limits and could work unreservedly with this technology, we wanted to provide a platform to demonstrate what great solutions can be realized with the design freedom enabled by Acrich. By doing so, it was our goal to show established lighting manufacturers what excellent designs can be achieved with new technologies like AC-LED technology, and that in reality the barriers are not as high as the perception today.