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Will Apple lead global supply chain to grow again with new product offering?

Apple CEO Tim Cook has been hinting at Apple’s work on augmented reality (AR) in an interview with media, telling fans to “stay tuned” and see what they have to offer. Something is already in the making, is it? Then observations from suppliers of Apple’s suppliers may have some value for people to listen to.

William Yeh, Taiwan & North Asia regional sales manager of Aerotech, told DIGITIMES, “While it is impossible to predict the future, there will always be companies that push the boundaries and drive the growth of the entire supply chain.”

“The rapid iteration of consumer electronic technology, for example, VR goggles or AR glasses need to be much lighter and ergonomically feasible. Innovations and new designs as such will boost the demand side and drive the supply chain to come up with new solutions for advanced manufacturing,” said Yeh.

Aerotech is a US company founded in 1970 and has been keeping a low profile. It solves motion control and automation challenges for complex applications in the world’s most demanding industries, including the semiconductor, display, laser, and photonics industries, and also many relevant research and development areas. In the semiconductor industry, alignment motions in EUV/DUV, carried out with extremely high precision, laser scanning to detect the slightest defects on wafers, or wafer drilling and bounding, Aerotech plays a role in the processing equipment.

As Aerotech serves customers across so many industry sectors, the company sometimes has access to a panoramic view of certain new trends that are just brewing.

“As a supplier to customers who are upstream companies in supply chains, we often collaborate with them to develop new advanced processes to address their needs, improving on precision and throughput each step of the way. These growth opportunities are very important to our customers because our advanced technology enables them to distinguish themselves from their competitors by increasing their products’ value,” said Yeh.

Aerotech’s strength is in its ability to put customers’ processes in motion, from conceptual feasibility studies to finally being able to produce products with proper automation technology, said Yeh. “Essentially, we are providing complete solutions, not just products, to our customers.”

MicroLED is a sub-generation display with high contrast and is very efficient in power consumption which Yeh finds promising. It is quite competitive in performance when compared to advanced OLED. However, the cost of producing microLED displays is still too high, it will take coordinated efforts from supply chain partners to help bring the cost down, said Yeh.

Yeh shared insights based on the company’s observations, saying that so far growth opportunities are mainly tied to the advancement of consumer electronics. The devices that go into modern consumer electronics such as displays, semiconductors, as well as printed circuit boards (PCBs) are all advancing, resulting in a more challenging manufacturing process.

Yeh pointed out that in North Asia, many opportunities emerge in advanced manufacturing processes for wearables, hand-held devices, and even AR/VR. As for North America, semiconductor and packaging equipment are the booming sectors. It takes various players within the supply chain to drive the optimization of some processes or components to realize some end products.

“The greatest limitation for VR/AR devices right now is not its computing power, but its wearability. Companies haven’t figured out how to make the devices slimmer, lighter, easier to wear, while still producing excellent virtual reality experiences that users can immerse in without feeling physically burdened or fatigued,” said Yeh. “For example, in the 2018 sci-fi movie ‘Ready Player One,’ the motions of VR users are not bounded by power supply cords.” If some companies can design very ergonomically sound VR/AR products, while the manufacturing capability makes major breakthroughs to make the scene a reality, that will drive the entire supply chain to move along with it, said Yeh.

When the industry is facing an unexciting flattening cycle, there are always companies that keep a razor-thin focus on advancing next-generation innovative technologies. iPhone was launched in 2007, but the initiation of R&D could have happened as early as the time when dot-com bubble burst in 2000-2001.

Apple’s iPhone and iPad have driven the global consumer electronics supply chain to grow at amazing speeds in the past decade. Many people probably are hoping for the emergence of a next-generation, innovative product to kickstart a new cycle to come soon, as the correction of the technology cycle has just begun, due to uncertainties in economic growth, pandemic and geopolitical tensions.

To make that happen, not only do companies such as Apple, Alphabet, Meta, or Acer, HTC and Asus need to come up with smart product offerings and innovative designs, but they also need engineers in semiconductor companies and panel display firms to grind on to advance high precision works to make innovative designs a reality.

Little do people know, while Apple is basking in all the glory on stage, the semiconductor industry is moving towards the sub-nanometer level to keep Moore’s Law alive, and there are many more unsung heroes such as Aerotech that support them with motion control systems of high throughput, high precision at nanometer precision levels — and these capabilities are critical functions that many semiconductor manufacturers cannot do without.

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