Apple Near Ready to Fire Up Sapphire Factory: Report

Apple, rumored to be planning a sapphire display for its next iPhone, has reportedly received a shipment of sapphire-making equipment.

Reports that the Apple iPhone 6 will feature a sapphire glass display are seeming more likely. Apple CEO Tim Cook confirmed in January that Apple is opening a factory in Mesa, Ariz., that will focus on sapphire glass, though he wouldn't say what the glass is for.

MacRumors reported Jan. 24 that Apple had teamed with GT Advanced Technologies on its sapphire project, and on Feb. 6, 9to5Mac, citing information received from investor Matt Margolis, reported that GT Advanced had received 518 sapphire furnace and chamber systems, and another 420 machines are on the way.

"The first 518 units, according to Margolis, could build between 103 million and 116 million [approximate] 5-inch displays per year," said the report. "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."

GT Advanced, in a January 2014 corporate overview, told investors, "In Nov. 2013, GT signed a multi-year sapphire materials supply agreement with a leading OEM, which is expected to provide GT with a platform for recurring sapphire materials revenues."

Corning, the maker of Gorilla Glass, has questioned the feasibility of using sapphire—an incredibly strong material—for mobile phone displays.

"What would people say if someone invented a cover that was about half the weight, used 99 percent less energy to make, provided brighter displays and cost less than a tenth of sapphire?" Jeffrey Evenson, Corning's senior vice president, wrote in a May 2013 report. "I think they'd say that sapphire is in real trouble. It so happens that we at Corning already invented that cover—and it's called Gorilla Glass."

Apple is working to address, at the very least, the pricing issue. According to the 9to5Mac report, GT Advanced has ordered an Intego Sirius Slab Automated Sapphire Display Inspect Tool, the purpose of which, documents for the tool explain, is to lower manufacturing and fabrication costs.

The report cites materials that state, "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."

It continues, "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 … 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."

Apple currently uses sapphire for the protective cover on the camera lens of the iPhone 5 and iPhone 5S, as well as on the iPhone 5S' home button, as part of its Touch ID solution.

It's rumored that Apple is working on iPhones with larger displays—4.7 and 5.5 inches, Bloomberg reported Nov. 10, adding that the glass will be curved and feature pressure-sensitive sensors.

Cook has said nothing of Apple's plans—except that customers "are going to love what we're going to do"—and refuses to acknowledge whether the company is working on a new product category. It's widely expected that Apple is working on a television set (an "iTV") and a smartwatch (the "iWatch"), and it has even been reported that Apple is working on a ring.

Whether it will feature a sapphire is anybody's guess.

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