LCD Assembly exploded view

What exactly is short in the market? Your iPhone’s screen is one solid unit made up of several elements that are fused together with OCA (optically clear adhesive). The exterior glass, the digitizer panel (touch sensor), the polarizer and LCD panel. The LCD panel is the key component that is in short supply. Originally Apple had 3 manufacturers to produce LCD panels (LG, Sharp and Toshiba). Apple’s authorized manufacturers have the exclusive technology to produce LCD panels. Other Chinese manufacturers can copy the glass, digitizer, polarizers, OCA, flex cables, backlights, frames and everything except for the main component of the LCD assembly.

LCD Cable Pulse Press Machine

How were we getting these parts before? A big leak in Apple’s supply chain. The iPhone 5, 5S and 5C all share most of the same raw components including the LCD panel, the only difference is the flex cable and plastic frame. Independent factories in China can produce these components and can manufacture any 5 series assembly from an LCD panel. Shown on the left is a pulse pressing machine, used to connect the flex cable to the LCD. We use one of these to repair LCDs with damaged flex cables.

iPhone LCD Comparison

So what’s happening? 
A few things, first Apple has cut off LG and Toshiba, making Sharp their exclusive supplier for iPhone LCD panels and implemented very tight security. Secondly, they have had Foxconn destroy stockpiles of series 5 LCD panels to reduce the parts and material leakage to factories that re-engineer them for the independent repair industry. Along with this strategy, Apple has instructed Foxconn to reduce series 6 materials leakage from their manufacturing centers. Lastly, Apple is working aggressively with US Customs to seize inbound parts.

How long is this shortage going to last? In short, we have no idea. At the time of this writing, LCD prices have been steadily rising for 6 months and replacement iPhone 6S LCDs cost twice what Apple charges for their repair service. Apple does not intend to compete with independent repair shops, instead they are squeezing the profit out of the industry. LCD refurbishing may help shops cut cost but without new LCD panels entering the system it won’t last long.

What does this mean for the independent repair community? Apple is the only repair operation that is immune. Even the Chinese LCD refurbishing plants used by the large chain repair companies are running out of LCDs. Continually rising costs may push out the big chains but with lower overhead and clever problem-solving, the owner-operated shops stand a fighting chance.

What can we do? Apple has done everything in their power to protect their repair monopoly. When there’s only one repair shop around, prices and wait time goes up and quality goes down. Apple has every incentive to eliminate the parts market. Don’t let them. Check out the Right to Repair Bill.