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In November of last year, Apple announced that it would be opening up a new manufacturing plant in Mesa, Arizona. Since that time, little information has come out about the plant except that it would be utilized to manufacture sapphire crystal for future Apple devices. The plant will be operated by Apple in tandem with GT Advanced Technologies. Earlier this year, we learned via (now removed) Apple job listings that the plant would involve components for future iPhone and iPod product lines.

Now, we have tracked down documents (with the help of analyst Matt Margolis) showing correspondence between U.S. Foreign Trade Zone officials and Apple’s Deputy Director of Global Trade Compliance. The documents were made public today by the Foreign Trade Zones Board. The papers indicate the materials Apple will utilize to manufacture sapphire, share details about Apple’s “aggressive” plan to take the facility live, and provide a description of how the sapphire will be used in future Apple products…

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While Apple CEO Tim Cook declined to tell ABC News when the factory would begin preparing sapphire glass components, these new documents reveal that Apple plans to take the plant live in February (next month). Interestingly, Apple’s James J. Patton describes the goal of meeting a February go-live timeline as “aggressive.” A February launch for the plant would indicate that Apple will begin producing sapphire for integration with Apple products as soon as later this year.

Speculation on how Apple will use this sapphire has ranged from displays for future iPhones, solar panels, and all the way to glass for future Apple wearable devices. Other possibilities include sapphire production for the existing Touch ID iPhone Home button and iPhone/iPod touch camera lens covers. But Apple’s explanation makes the sapphire crystal sound even more interesting than covers for buttons and camera lenses (emphasis ours):

Project Cascade will conduct high-tech manufacturing of intermediate goods/components for consumer electronics. All finished components will be exported. This high-tech manufacturing process will create a critical new sub-component of Apple Products to be used in the manufacture of the consumer electronics that will be imported and then sold globally. By pulling this process into the U.S., Apple will be using cutting edge, new technology to enhance and improve the consumer products, making them best in class per product type.

Apple’s definition of a “critical new sub-component” is obviously vague, but the word “new” likely indicates that this is for a component never used in previous Apple products. Combined with reports from earlier this week of Apple and Foxconn conducting test runs of sapphire iPhone displays, it seems plausible that a purpose of the Mesa, Arizona plant is to actually produce the sapphire screens.

Sapphire-covered iPhone screens would make the smartphones less susceptible to screen scratches, and this could improve the overall user experience of owning an iPhone. Apple has patented a method of doing this, and it would not be a stretch to assume that similar sapphire screen technologies could make their way to other Apple devices such as iPads, iPods, and even… iWatches.

Apple has also patented pressure-sensitive touchscreens, as a means of allowing additional gestures and disregarding accidental input.

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The documents also list some of the other components to be used at the Mesa facility (shown above). On the list: diamond cutting wire and alumina block. Alumina block and the heating equipment are components for manufacturing the actual sapphire crystal material. Diamond cutting wire has been utilized in manufacturing components of current Apple products, such as the bezels of the iPhone 5/5s, iPad Air/Mini, and, most recently, the Mac Pro.

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iPhone 5′s bezel being cut with diamond wire

The fact that this facility has diamond cutting wire is also interesting in light of the earlier mentioned job listings referring to this plant involving the design and engineering of iPhones and iPods.

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The document also includes a map of the plant (shown above). We’ve previously posted spy shots of the construction of the plant. This map does not bring us many new pieces of information, but it is interesting to see the scope of the facility.

Full PDF:

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17 Responses to “Apple aggressively pushing to take Arizona sapphire plant live in February for ‘critical’ product component”

  1. Sam Davis says:

    New like an ipad touch ID button perhaps. This joint can’t make 140 million iphone 6 screens.

    • From what I found in a basic search, it is enough to make “between 34 million and 51 million 5-inch iPhone screen covers each year” but with Hyperion slicing, and Apple’s lamination patent, that number would be multiplied many times over.

  2. themis333 says:

    Reblogged this on Taste of Apple and commented:
    A sapphire screen would be a great addition to a bigger iPhone and would reduce the level of worry some might have about using it without a protective case, along with the other benefits of using such a material.

  3. The sapphire is for the iWatch. It’s amazing no one gets this yet.

  4. I think you’re both right. Touch ID and iWatch. Finger’s crossed! This Pebble has got to go!

  5. drtyrell969 says:

    I’m just glad they’re bringing manufacturing and assembly to America.

  6. Sapphire for the screens and Liquid Metal for the case assembly. Looks like a radical, light, waterproof and resilient set of products that will be nearly impossible to copy, due to Apples patents on the materials.

  7. Ari says:

    This actually screams iWatch, it also makes sense because an iwatch screen is smaller than an iphone screen and bigger than the Touch ID home button or lens cover. I think the first product to see the adoption of sapphire display will be the iWatch (cause if it would use a normal screen i bet that few of them would last on our wrist more than a couple of months) and then we will also see it on iphones maybe on the 6S. in the meantime Apple will have reduced cost and mastered the production. sounds legit to me.

  8. Any idea where the sapphires will come from? Montana?

    • Lee Calamaio says:

      The plant will produce synthetic sapphire crystals.

      Agreed it is likely for the iWatch, though I actually suspect that the iWatch is really a merging/the future of the iPod line. Might be a watch shape, or a bracelet/cuff design, but I’ll bet it replaces the iPod line or at least is a part of it.

    • Jason says:

      Sapphire is just transparent aluminium crystal. Machines melt the aluminum & other ingredients and grow crystals blanks called boules out of the molten solution over weeks and weeks, kinda like making rock candy. The resulting sapphire boules (a crystal cylinder about a foot in diameter and height) are then sliced into wafers.

  9. The Diamond Wire is used to cut sapphire into think sheets since the material has such a high hardness level.

  10. If Apple are really going to make a push into payments, the sapphire used to make their current fingerprint sensor could find its way into a lot more products very quickly and be considered a “critical” device component. A watch would also be an almost perfect “always on” device that could be used for authentication.