Last year, Apple and GT Advanced struck a deal to open and operate a manufacturing facility in Mesa, Arizona related to sapphire crystal components.

Earlier this year, we learned that Apple is “aggressively” pushing to make the facility operational by February 2014 and that the building would produce a “critical” and “new” sub-component for future Apple devices. Due to the vagueness and secrecy surrounding Apple and GT Advanced’s plans, there has been little to no confirmation regarding what exactly the partnership will yield for future Apple products.

But, thanks to new documents and information that we have uncovered with help of analyst Matt Margolis, we have a clearer picture of Apple’s plans…

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.39.26 AM

As we speculated in a previous article, it appears that Apple is planning to build sapphire-crystal displays for future iPhones. This is opposed to this facility building sapphire components for future Apple Touch ID fingerprint readers and caps for camera sensors. The proof that GT Advanced is preparing to manufacture sapphire for displays comes from import/export records. As can be seen in the image above, GT Advanced has ordered Intego Sirius Sapphire Display Inspection Tool components.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.52.27 AM

Documents detailing those inspection tool components explain their purpose:

Lowering manufacturing and fabrication costs of sapphire is a key driver for accelerating the adoption of its use in new market segments such as cover screens for smartphones and mobile devices. GT Advanced Technologies is working with key downstream technology providers to optimize fabrication processes and technologies to lower the cost of sapphire cover screen material.

GT is partnering with Intego GmbH to develop a series of automated sapphire inspection tools that will increase the yield of high quality sapphire material from each boule and ensure that only high quality material enters the value stream. The SIRIUS Slab automated sapphire inspection tool begins a new level of repeatability and performance throughput to the production of sapphire material intended for high volume markets such as mobile and touch screen devices.

The machines will allow GT Advanced to ensure that the sapphire crystal displays meet high-quality standards. These machines are specific for display-grade components, not small pieces of sapphire that could be used for Home buttons or cameras.

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.44.12 AM

The machines are large and can process several slabs of sapphire crystal screen covers simultaneously. Above is a drawing of the equipment.

Because GT Advanced is not owned by Apple, it may be unclear if every component purchase by GT Advanced is for Apple-related purposes. Of course, GT Advanced has had several partners in the past. However, information from a recent GT Advanced SEC filing seems to point to all current work being exclusive for Apple-related uses:

Screen Shot 2014-02-06 at 10.50.22 AM

Based on the above details from the SEC filing, Apple and GT Advanced are currently in an exclusive partnership in relation to “Consumer Electronics Products,” and this makes it unlikely that the new sapphire crystal display work could be for any other technology company’s products.

ASF_Crop_Web

Besides the sapphire crystal display testing tools, GT Advanced has ordered several other components throughout the past few months. Most importantly, several furnaces and chambers. The sapphire furnace and chamber system is pictured above. The silver-colored metal drum is the chamber, and the entire machine makes up a completed furnace.

Both pieces work together to transform sapphire crystal material into “boules” that look like large hockey pucks. Those “boules” are then re-processed, polished, and sliced into the shapes of displays.

As of now, according to shipping documents and other data from Margolis, GT Advanced has received 518 of the pictured units, with another 420 machines on order (that have yet to be assembled). The first 518 units, according to Margolis, could build between 103 million and 116 million ~5-inch displays per year. The additional machines would nearly double that annual output with an additional 84 million to 94 million screen covers. GT Advanced has also ordered over 100 tons of graphite material to heat the furnaces.

As we’ve previously noted, sapphire crystal displays would make the iPhone’s screen much stronger and scratch resistant. The new screen could be a headline feature of the next iPhone model, which is expected to see a larger screen along with curved glass edges. We’re currently investigating some other developments regarding Apple’s plans for the Mesa, Arizona manufacturing plant, so stay tuned.

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35 Responses to “Apple just procured enough Sapphire Crystal furnaces to make 100-200M ~5-inch iPhone displays in Arizona”

  1. This report looks pretty solid. Good work. Getting very tired of reading daily rumor articles on BGR.

    Not sure if I’ll like the curved glass but scratch resistance will be nice. Hopefully they’ll still apply an oleophobic coating.

  2. “As we speculated in a previous article, it appears that Apple is planning to build sapphire-crystal displays glass for future iPhones”

    As you speculated, wrongly.

    • lol, let’s give Apple time to release a non-sapphire phone before claiming that speculation from two weeks ago is wrong… Last I heard, Apple hasn’t released a new phone since they published that “previous article”.

  3. exciting, I just don’t understand exactly how you or the analyst got 5 inch screen from that, could it be 4.7′ 4.8′ ?

    • They stated ~5″ screens. Which is short hand for approximately 5″ screens. So, they could be 4.7″ or 4.8″ or even 5.2″ screens.

      The point is that they have the capability to make the size and quantity needed for phone displays, not exactly what size of display that is.

    • Illustration:
      13″ MBP/MBA – 13.3″ display
      iPad, 10″ tablet category – 9.7″ display

      It’s one part shorthand to help consumers compare devices without getting too technical, another part reporters guesstimating based on supply chain hints and rumors, and one part that math with 7 digit numbers is much easier with round numbers :)

  4. PMZanetti says:

    So at this stage sounds like 2015 iPhones will be Sapphire Crystal. A Great up-sell enhancement for the 6S.

  5. Isn’t sapphire pretty brittle? Are we sacrificing drop-test strength for scratch resistance? If that’s the case, I think I’d rather take a few scratches to spare myself the spider-web stylization of a shattered screen.

    Also, is a September/October enough time for them to produce the covers on a launch-sized scale? As long as the screens aren’t too brittle, then I’d hope so, I’m just wondering if maybe this is in preparation for something coming down the pipe next year. Not to be a downer or anything… just the persistent skepticism spawned from overzealous iPhone prognostication in the past.

    • Sapphire is second to Diamond in terms of strength.

      • Sapphire is second to diamond in terms of hardness, not strength.
        The Mohs hardness scale (where sapphire is indeed just beneath diamond in terms of hardness) is a relative scale that only informs you about what materials will scratch, or be scratched by, other materials. So while according to the Mohs hardness scale, diamond is one of the few things that will scratch sapphire (diamond is actually 4x harder than sapphire in absolute terms, although it is only one number higher on the Mohs scale), that has nothing to do with whether or not sapphire will break or chip when cut in a thin sheet.

        The fact that hardness does not equal “strength” in terms of shatter resistance is painfully illustrated to anyone who has shattered the sapphire face of a nice watch. The reason watchmakers use sapphire is not to prevent the face from breaking, but to cut down on scratches. Since watches are not dropped nearly as often as a phone, it makes sense to focus on a material that provides more scratch resistance, but may compromise on shatter resistance. It is true that watches only have a thin sapphire dome with nothing to support it, so that could contribute to the fact that sapphire watches are still susceptible to cracking/shattering. Maybe having a display directly contacting sapphire will be able to support the it enough to prevent it from sharing the same weakness. I hope so. The idea of having a virtual scratch-proof screen on my phone would be awesome. I just wouldn’t want to be one of the few million who buy one opening weekend, only to find out that drops my previous iPhone survived without a ding end up shattering my nice, new 5″ screen.

      • Nice post, Trevor — and I am sure we would all prefer strength over scratch resistance.

      • Watch this video: http://youtu.be/AJ1WWRKKelY

        According to this, the fact that gorellia glass

      • rahhbriley says:

        Thank you Trevor. I’ve gotten tired of explaining what you just did. Hardness and toughness are different used to sell watches with sapphire crystal. Stuff is cool and highly scratch resentment, but I’ve seem a healthy amount of shattered sapphire watch crystals. It’d be cool to see what kinda of enhancements in the process Apple may bd implementing. I too doubt the fact this is for an iPhone display, but who knows.

    • According to science, sapphire crystal is roughly four times less likely to shatter than Gorilla Glass. So it’s scratch proof *and* more shatter resistant. This is just a calculation though. According to Corning, they tested it and it was twice as *easy* to shatter as Gorilla Glass. Real world tests will tell, but I’m thinking unless you assume everyone at Apple is an idiot, that it’s probably better at both.

      • Do you have a link or a reference? You say “According to science…” so I’m just wondering, because I honestly would love to read it. I really would like to have an awesome screen that I don’t have to worry about scratching or shattering, I just haven’t been able to find anywhere on the internet (other than Corning and a couple wrist watch forums) where anybody says anything about whether or not sapphire actually is stronger than glass when it comes to material stability. However, I also understand enough of “science” to know that, in general, when a material gets harder (more resistant to scratching), it generally get’s less flexible and thus more likely to break (aka brittle).

        As for my assuming that “everyone at Apple is an idiot”, I don’t think that at all. I honestly feel like Apple produces the best overall user experience with some of the best devices available on the market. However, I can’t help but curse all of the smart people at Apple who signed off on Apple Maps every time I end up on the opposite side of a city from where I’m supposed to be, or every time they try to drive me down streets that have been gone for years… nobody’s perfect, and even the holy ones at Apple can be wrong sometimes.

      • pkdecville says:

        Apple Maps is Apple’s Beghazi; a story that never stops, even though, Apple Maps is at least as good as GMaps today. (They both make errors; it’s part of the game.)

  6. Samsung, quick, start your copiers NOW…

    Mayyybe you even have enough time to get a product out the door before Apple does.

  7. Jekk says:

    Sapphire Crystal FTW! :)

  8. Ivan Petkov says:

    “The first 518 units, according to Margolis, could build between 103 million and 116 million ~5-inch displays per year.” Incorrect! One crystal furnace = 200 kg sapphire boule per 23-24 day, i.e 360/24=15 boules per year – 3000kg*518 furnaces = 1 554 000 kg. About 50-60 g of boule’s material requires for one screen. So 1 554 000kg / 0.05=31 million

    • Good start, but have to factor in edge loss due to imperfections, so cut the boule down by about 20%. Then factor in the cutting loss, another 10% depending on shape of covers. These won’t be used for iPhones, I don’t see why people keep thinking that, morons. This will be for an iWatch, it’s clear as day! I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

      • pkdecville says:

        There is no cutting loss. Google “Hyperion GTAT” and understand why Apple’s partnered with GTAT.

  9. What if the next iPhone had sapphire front and BACK (reminiscent of the iPhone 4) but with gently curved edges. I think it would feel amazing in the hand.

  10. danbridgland says:

    Can’t see Apple upholding their green energy credentials with so many furnaces. Not withstanding offsetting.

  11. Ray Migues says:

    Maybe our screens won’t cost so much now that they bought all that!

    http://www.ugsrecords.com/beatsbygambit
    http://www.la-quotes.com

  12. reesmaxwell says:

    Dumbest graph of the week: they shipped out somewhere between 1.6 shipments, and 2.4 shipments. Above we can see it’s 2 shipments. Why is the scale so wonky?

  13. I’m thinking 1/4 of those furnaces could be used for the iWatch.

  14. they are talking about same sapphire glass which gave purple shade in iPhone 4s camera lens.

  15. APPLE’S BIG SCREEN TV TO DEBUT IN THE 4TH QUARTER OF 2014 AND THE 5.5 INCH OR 5.7 INCH PHABLET WILL SEE LIGHT IN THE 2ND QUARTER. THAT IS WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT.

  16. Sapphire will make Apple’s screen more scratch resistant but it will not make them stronger, they will be more brittle due to sapphire’s hardness. Can we have an article written by someone who understands physics.

    • As for the materials science wars, it’s interesting to see one university prof
      talk about “fracture toughness”, ala an excerpt from:

      http://techcrunch.com/2013/11/08/why-apple-bought-578m-worth-of-sapphire-in-advance/

      “Chemically strengthened glass can be excellent, but sapphire is better in terms of hardness, strength, and toughness,” says Matthew Hall, Director of the Center for Advanced Ceramic Technology at the Kazuo Inamori School of Engineering at Alfred University. “The fracture toughness of sapphire should be around 4 times greater than Gorilla Glass – about 3 MPa-m0.5 versus 0.7 MPa-m0.5, respectively.”

      and the defender/current champion Corning showing vids of “ring strength”:

      http://www.corninggorillaglass.com/gorilla-channel/Corning®-Gorilla®-Glass-vs.-Sapphire

      But scratch resistance vs. shatter-resistant flexibility isn’t an “either/or” proposition; Apple / GT has advanced a hybrid approach of laminating thin sapphire to thicker treated glass, with side benefits of cost reduction. Seems win/win to me — bulk-ion-implanted glass for the cost and “strength”, sapphire for the scratch resistance. The sapphire-on-glass laminate patents are just surfacing now…