Apple's Sapphire-Screen iPhone Less 'If' Than 'When'
The latest rumors about Apple's plans to manufacture sapphire at a new plant in Arizona are the most credible foundation yet for speculation that the iPhone will someday boast the most scratch-resistant screen on the planet. Of course, it's not clear if the next-generation iPhone would get such a sapphire screen, or if the world would have to wait until 2015, presumably for an "iPhone 6s" model.
02/11/14 5:00 AM PT
If the latest sapphire tech rumor is true, Apple's exclusive manufacturing partner, GT Advanced Technologies, is gearing up its Mesa, Ariz., manufacturing facility with enough furnaces to forge as many as 200 million iPhone displays.
Previously, most super-hard sapphire crystal rumors were limited to small component usage in Apple products, like scratch-proof Touch ID sensors or camera lens covers.
A new investigative report by 9to5mac.com's Mark Gurman revealing capacity and import/export details, coupled with an SEC filing, leads to the conclusion that GT Advanced is tooling up for extremely high volumes of product -- exclusively for Apple.
Last fall, the state of Arizona announced that Apple planned to build a manufacturing facility that would create somewhere around 2,000 new jobs during the creation and then maintenance of the facility, which would include a new solar power grid. In November, GT Advanced Technologies announced an exclusive US$578 million deal with Apple to produce sapphire material in Arizona.
Through help from analyst Matt Margolis, Gurman reported that GT Advanced Technologies imported two Intego Sirius sapphire display inspection tools, which GT Advanced Technologies' website says are capable of improving yields and lowering costs of Sapphire for high-volume LED and touchscreen applications.
Gurman extracts his "mobile and touch screen devices" leap from a GT Advanced Technologies downloadable .pdf that describes the inspection tool. (This .pdf shows up in a Google search for "sirius slab," but I was unable to find a navigable link to it from gtat.com.)
Leap of Faith?
Presumably, GT Advanced Technologies would utilize these inspection tools in its Arizona plant, and because the tools are capable of use for sapphire material large enough for mobile device displays, they would be imported for use for Apple's iPhones... or a new product, such as the heavily rumored "iWatch."
However, Gurman acknowledged that there may not even be a direct connection between the imported inspection tools and the Arizona-based facility. Maybe they were delivered there -- but perhaps intended for a different use.
In March of 2013, GT Advanced Technologies entered into an exclusive distribution agreement with Intego for automated sapphire inspection tools, meaning GT Advanced Technologies could sell the tools to anyone, not necessarily only to Apple. So the tools don't even have to be used by GT Advanced Technologies in order to be imported.
On the surface, this just isn't a one-to-one connection, but since Apple reportedly is buying all the materials that go into the sapphire plant -- contracting with GT Advanced Technologies to run it, as Gurman noted based on an SEC filing -- the conclusion that Apple wants the two sapphire inspection tools is reasonable.
Last of all, Gurman connected orders for hundreds of furnaces and chambers, all of which -- if put to use -- could conceivably deliver more than 103 million iPhone screens in the 5-inch range. Additional furnaces on order could ramp the capacity of the plant past 200 million units.
All told, Gurman's digging and connections combine to create the most credible rumor yet that Apple's iPhones could boast the most scratch-resistant screens on the planet. Of course, it's not clear if the next-generation iPhone would get such a sapphire screen, or if the world would have to wait until 2015, presumably for an "iPhone 6s" model.
Then again, maybe it really all is for an iWatch. Late last year, patent-watcher site Patently Apple unearthed an Apple patent for a "sapphire flexible transparent display device created with liquid metal."
For those with active imaginations, it's darn good reading, too.