Business / Corporate

Apple watch supplier Japan Display in talks on smartphone OLED investment

Bloomberg

Japan Display Inc., the struggling supplier of screens to Apple Inc., says it is in talks with customers on possible joint investments in next-generation organic light-emitting diode displays.

JDI is developing a technology that will deliver OLED screens that are sharper, less power hungry and are easier to produce, the company’s Chief Executive Officer Minoru Kikuoka said in an interview. While JDI is a few technical milestones short of deciding whether to push ahead, it has already started talks with some customers on investing in the new technology, Kikuoka said, declining to name specific companies.

The launch of Apple’s first OLED iPhone in 2017 was seen as the beginning of the end for the long reign of liquid crystal displays — a dire threat for JDI because that is its core business. The company relies on Apple for about 60 percent of its revenue was falling behind in technology and lacked the funds needed to ramp up production. But forecasts of LCD’s demise missed the mark, giving JDI the breathing room to develop a smaller OLED for use in the Apple Watch. It is now considering entry into the smartphone market, a move which will pit it against Samsung Electronics Co. and Chinese manufacturers.

“We have no intention of getting into a capex war with rivals,” Kikuoka said. “There is already tremendous interest in partnering with us on commercialization.”

JDI intends to use a different manufacturing technology than the evaporation method used by rivals, Kikuoka said. Whether to advance to mass production will depend on its ability to raise output yields and customer needs at the time. He estimated that the company could commence full-scale manufacturing in Japan or abroad as early as 2022.

Constituted from the remains of numerous ailing Japanese display makers in 2012, JDI mistimed large investments in LCD capacity and found itself struggling against abler competition from South Korean and Chinese rivals. Six straight years of losses have sent it in search of a capital infusion from overseas, but the list of potential suitors continued to dwindle. When Kikuoka took the helm in September, the company had just reached a new low, warning that if it’s not able to raise fresh capital it may face difficulties continuing its business.

Since then, it secured a lifeline that included about ¥50 billion ($466 million) raised from Ichigo Trust and a refinancing scheme by Innovation Network Corp. of Japan, a state-owned fund that remains JDI’s largest shareholders. Apple has also pitched in by buying some of its manufacturing equipment.

While the threat of insolvency has lifted, the company is still struggling to return to profit. It booked a ¥38.5 billion operating loss in the year ended March, after sales plunged 21 percent. JDI forecast sales will decline as much as 20 percent this fiscal year, citing the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and slump in demand for screens in smartphones and cars.

The industry’s looming shift to OLED is another factor weighing on its shares, which trade at less than a tenth the level when it listed in 2014. While Apple’s 2019 phone lineup included one LCD model and another was added in the first half of this year, the expectations are building that this year will mark a complete shift to OLED. Still, Kikuoka says the alarm is unwarranted.

“It is more than a customer-supplier relationship, more akin to that of a co-developer supplier,” he said. “I don’t see our relationship diminishing.”

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