Apple is preparing for a big push in sapphire crystal display manufacturing, according to some new information unearthed by 9to5Mac and told to TechCrunch via a source familiar with the company’s plans.
9to5Mac, with the help of analyst Matt Margolis, has obtained documents that report Apple placing an order with partner GT Advanced technologies for large quantities of furnaces and chambers used in making sapphire displays. Our source informs us that a large order placed at Meyer Burger for wire-based diamond cutting systems (useful in handling ultra hard material like sapphire) was actually for Apple for delivery in 2014, though they aren’t named as a customer.
Regarding the furnaces, Mark Gurman at 9to5Mac reports that GT Advanced has already taken delivery of 518 units, which could allow it to build as many as 116 displays of roughly five inches in size per year, with another 420 machines still on order, for a total potential capacity of around 200 million display panels at a size around one inch larger (rumors suggest new models will be bigger) than the current diagonal proportions of the iPhone 5s screen. Apple sold around 150 million iPhones in 2013 to put that in perspective, so doing the math, it could indeed be the case that Apple is putting the pieces together for a production run that spans the entire next generation of iPhone hardware.
Gurman’s report adds that GT Advanced has ordered a large quantity of Sirius Sapphire Display Inspection Tool components, which helps manufacturers using sapphire in displays specifically for smartphones and other mobile devices by increasing yield numbers and making sure only high quality sapphire makes it into the production stream.
Back when the GT Advanced deal, which saw Apple contribute $578 million to build a manufacturing plant for sapphire crystal in Arizona, our own Matthew Panzarino explained that it made sense for Apple to invest early in the tech should it plan to use it in large volumes later own. At first, it seemed likely that in the short-term, Apple’s focus would be more on small screen production with sapphire (for existing components like the camera lens cover and Touch ID sensor), but Gurman seems to believe iPhone displays are at least as likely.
That’s backed up by a tidbit also reported by Matthew around the time of the revelation of the GT Advanced deal: Apple filed a patent recently for manufacturing sapphire laminates, which can help greatly reduce the cost of production for use of the material in touchscreen devices. Now, Apple seems ready to build the infrastructure necessary to turn its R&D into a key component advantage for future iPhone hardware.
We’ve reached out to Apple for comment on these new reports around sapphire component manufacturing, but we have yet to hear back. We’ll update if new information comes to light.