Sapphire supply and demand back in check, says Yole Développement

Nov. 3, 2011
Lyon, France--Following the massive material shortage in 2010, sapphire material and finished wafer prices remained high through early 2011, according to a new report by Yole Développement.

Lyon, France--Following the massive material shortage in 2010, sapphire material and finished wafer prices remained high through early 2011, according to a new report by Yole Développement.

Wafer and LED manufacturers prepared for a massive intake of LEDs in the LCD TV market and started building up sapphire inventory for fear that supply might remain short, according the report. But a softer-than-expected LED TV market and an increasing sapphire capacity coming from established vendors worked together to rapidly bring supply and demand back into balance this summer, triggering a fast drop in wafer prices that have now returned to their pre-shortage levels. While sapphire demand will pick up in late 2011 and early 2012, additional capacity from new entrants is expected to enter the supply chain and keep 2 in. prices at their historical lows for the foreseeable future.

Significant volume growth and the sapphire material shortage experienced through 2010 and early 2011 have created a window of opportunity for new entrants. In the last 18 months, more than 50 companies have announced their intention to enter the industry and would bring the total number of potential participants in this market to close to 100. More than 40 of those new entrants are located in China. Looking at midterm, adding up the capacity plans announced by those newcomers leads to a figure corresponding to almost 3x actual demand, a situation unlikely to actually materialize.

Most of the new entrants have little to no prior experience in sapphire crystal growth and wafer manufacturing. While the availability of "turn-key solutions" from various growth equipment suppliers has lowered the barrier to entry, reaching and sustaining high quality and high yields in sapphire crystal growth still requires significant expertise. The learning curve can be steep for newcomers to reach yield levels on par with established tier-one manufacturers. Wafer finishing also requires unique expertise and could prove challenging for companies with no prior experience. Beyond wire saw manufacturers offering efficient slicing solutions and process, now turnkey solutions are available for wafer finishing.

The 2010 pricing environment was very forgiving and allowed some new entrants to achieve comfortable margins despite low yields and sub-par technology. Yole Développement calculated that many of those new companies have production cost in the $6–10/mm of 2 in. core and will therefore lose money at the current market price. At the same time, established vendors with higher yields, large volumes, and a more favorable product mix, including large-diameter wafers, can achieve production cost <$5 that will allow them to maintain positive margins and weather the storm. Mid-term, Yole Développement expects that this situation will weed out the weakest players and trigger the withdrawal of many potential new entrants.

"The sapphire substrate industry, driven by LED applications, was initially developed based on a 2 in. diameter platform. Companies like Lumileds and Nichia were the first to move to 3 in. around 2003 while Osram pioneered the adoption of 4 in. shortly after. Due to the large concentration of metal-organic chemical vapor deposition (MOCVD) capacity in Taiwan and the current ramp in China, 2 in. is expected to remain the dominant platform through 2012," explains Eric Virey, senior market and technology analyst at Yole Développement.

But many established Taiwan-based epitaxy companies are transitioning from 2 to 4 in. while some in Korea, the U.S., and Europe have already made great strides in the their 6 in. conversion. Long-term, a question mark remains regarding the economics of 8 in. But R&D has already started and Yole Développement believes that recent improvements in sapphire growth and slicing technologies could enable a cost of ownership that in time will be compatible with the adoption of the platform.

The report, titled Sapphire Market, provides updated volume and market forecast for finished wafers and material through 2020, along with capacity analysis, price trends, and new company profiles. In addition, an extensive review of the raw material and crystal growth equipment suppliers is provided, offering a complete, up-to-date view of the sapphire wafer industry.

SOURCE: Yole Développement; www.yole.fr.

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