Good news and not-so-good news in LEDs

By Tom Hausken
There was good news and some not-so-good news at our 13th SIL event in February. First the good news: it was another record year for LEDs, and for that matter, for the Strategies in Light event. As my colleague, Ella Shum, reported: sales totaled $12.5 billion in 2011, thanks to growth in all major segments except backlights.

The not-so-good news is that growth will continue through 2012 but the market will be tepid for a few years beyond that, ending in 2016 in about the same place, the way things are going. This is because LED suppliers are so successful in reducing the selling price while improving the performance. Growth in sales is countered by reduction in the LED count (per product) and falling prices, making a double whammy. This is good for increasing penetration of LEDs into lighting and other applications, but it’s hard on suppliers’ profits. In fact, it was a bloodbath, in Ella's words, due to overcapacity.

Looking at this another way, the LED business is maturing. It still has a long way to go with lighting, of course, and even backlights. But the business is now of such a size that it is starting to behave like DRAMs, to use a cliché. Penetration into new applications is not enough to guarantee LED industry growth through the coming lull. From now on, LED sales will be highly dependent on the fortunes of the end-product markets for backlights, just as DRAM sales are highly dependent on personal computer sales.

To improve margins and market share, LED suppliers will have to stay ahead in scale and performance. LED lighting, in particular, will require larger volumes and high performance devices. Suppliers that can manufacture well in volume (improving yield and tightening binning, for example) will fare well. The suppliers that cannot may be relegated to older segments that don’t require the performance that lighting does. Or they may simply get squeezed out of the market.
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