HOT TECH RUMOR

Apple’s Sapphire-Screen iPhone Less ‘If’ Than ‘When’

If the latest sapphire tech rumor is true, Apple’s exclusivemanufacturing partner, GT Advanced Technologies, is gearing up itsMesa, Ariz., manufacturing facility with enough furnaces to forgeas many as 200 million iPhone displays.

Previously, most super-hard sapphire crystal rumors were limited tosmall component usage in Apple products, like scratch-proof Touch IDsensors or camera lens covers.

A new investigativereport by 9to5mac.com’s Mark Gurman revealing capacity andimport/export details, coupled with an SEC filing, leads to theconclusion that GT Advanced is tooling up for extremely high volumesof product — exclusively for Apple.

Digging Deep

Last fall, the state of Arizona announced that Apple planned to builda manufacturing facility that would create somewhere around 2,000 newjobs during the creation and then maintenance of the facility, whichwould include a new solar power grid. In November, GT Advanced Technologies announcedan exclusive US$578 million deal with Apple to produce sapphirematerial in Arizona.

Through help from analyst Matt Margolis, Gurman reported that GTAdvanced Technologies imported two Intego Sirius sapphire displayinspection tools, which GT Advanced Technologies’ website says are capableof improving yields and lowering costs of Sapphire for high-volumeLED and touchscreen applications.

Gurman extracts his “mobile and touch screen devices” leap from a GTAdvanced Technologies downloadable .pdf that describes theinspection tool. (This .pdf shows up in a Google search for “siriusslab,” but I was unable to find a navigable link to it from gtat.com.)

Leap of Faith?

Presumably, GT Advanced Technologies would utilize these inspectiontools in its Arizona plant, and because the tools are capable of usefor sapphire material large enough for mobile device displays, theywould be imported for use for Apple’s iPhones… or a new product,such as the heavily rumored “iWatch.”

However, Gurman acknowledgedthat there may not even be a direct connection between the importedinspection tools and the Arizona-based facility. Maybe they weredelivered there — but perhaps intended for a different use.

In March of 2013, GT Advanced Technologies entered into an exclusivedistribution agreement with Intego for automated sapphireinspection tools, meaning GT Advanced Technologies could sellthe tools to anyone, not necessarily only to Apple. So the tools don’teven have to be used by GT Advanced Technologies in order to beimported.

On the surface, this just isn’t a one-to-one connection, but sinceApple reportedly is buying all the materials that go into the sapphireplant — contracting with GT Advanced Technologies to run it, asGurman noted based on an SEC filing — the conclusion that Apple wants the two sapphireinspection tools is reasonable.

Baking Sapphire

Last of all, Gurman connected orders for hundreds of furnaces andchambers, all of which — if put to use — could conceivably delivermore than 103 million iPhone screens in the 5-inch range. Additionalfurnaces on order could ramp the capacity of the plant past 200million units.

All told, Gurman’s digging and connections combine to create the mostcredible rumor yet that Apple’s iPhones could boast the mostscratch-resistant screens on the planet. Of course, it’s not clear ifthe next-generation iPhone would get such a sapphire screen, or if theworld would have to wait until 2015, presumably for an “iPhone 6s”model.

Then again, maybe it really all is for an iWatch. Late lastyear, patent-watcher site Patently Apple unearthed an Apple patent fora “sapphireflexible transparent display device created with liquid metal.”

For those with active imaginations, it’s darn good reading, too.

MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com. You can also connect with him on Google+.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

E-Commerce Times Channels