Apple’s Potential Sapphire Glass Strategies

19 Nov


Apple’s US$ 578 million agreement with GT Advanced Technologies, a manufacturer specializing in making sapphire-based solutions and related-technological equipments, has managed to generate a lot of attention lately. In part, this is due to the Cupertino company’s decision to make use of GTAT’s sapphire manufacturing tecnology, a plan which signals the possibility of there being cheaper, more advanced sapphire-based components in the future, improved production efficiency among Apple’s suppliers, and a wider, more interesting variety of sapphire themed applications in future Apple products. In the periods ahead, it would not be unreasonable to expect a new iPhone device whose display is derived entirely from GTAT’s uniquely assembled crystalline material.

Apple’s future sapphire component strategy: a few possibilities 

Apple is currently known to use sapphire in just two areas: the iPhone’s rear camera and the newly incorporated Touch ID button. Having already poured in a hefty amount of investment into the GTAT partnership, there is little question that the Cupertino giant will extend the use of sapphires to other areas of its product lines, including the display surfaces of the new iPhone, iPad, and iWatch devices.

A recently revealed Apple patent, titled “Sapphire Laminates,” provides a possible hint as to how sapphires might eventually be applied to a screen that’s as big as an iPad’s. As explained in the patent’s abstract, a large, cost-effective sapphire surface covering an entire iPhone or iPad device can be accomplished by positioning an existing glass structure between two thin sapphire sheets and fusing them together. Such a method produces a screen that is potentially more durable than any typical high-end display, and could effectively help Apple save not just significant manufacturing costs, but also additional supplies of sapphire material. Theoretically speaking, the Cupertino giant could also choose to laminate a touch-screen module in the manner described above, although whether –and exactly how— this would work depends on the technology that is used by the company’s manufacturing partners.

In addition to laminating existing glass structures with sapphire materials, one other interesting technique covered in Apple’s patent involves the bonding of two separate sapphire sheets (see diagram below) into one single sapphire-based structure. Doing so, according to Patently Apple, would allow the Cupertino company to make its sapphire displays as thin as 1 mm and ensure that whatever devices they are attached to fulfills Apple’s stringent lightweight requirements.


A series of possible processes used to infuse Apple displays with sapphire material (picture from AppleInsider)

Apple’s decision to invest in GTAT, when looked at from a marketing and investment standpoint, serves as an important indication of the company’s faith in sapphire technology, and suggests for a future in which sapphire-derived material is a mainstream component for all kinds of mobile devices. In looking more closely at the company’s general history, one could also get a sense of where Apple is eventually headed with its sapphire-based manufacturing capability. The Cupertino giant has always possessed a habit of investing in potential technologies, whether they fulfill existing consumer needs or cater to future, yet-to-be-realized demand. This sort of investment tendency allows the company to avoid potential shortages from arising within the supply chain as well as prevents other competitors from making proper advancements within the industry.

During the time when Apple’s retina display was just becoming popular, HP notably tried to counter its competitor’s influence by developing its own high-res display panels intended for the “TouchPad” tablet lines. The company would ultimately fail to overshadow Apple, unfortunately, as the latter managed to lock onto most of the orders from the industry’s key component suppliers. By the time HP garnered sufficient panel orders for its tablet product, the Cupertino giant’s iDevices had already managed to dominate the entire mobile market. Getting a hold on potentially critical components is a common strategy often utilized by Apple that has, and will likely continue to, remain effective.

Policy Considerations 

In addition to locking onto critical technology beforehand, Apple’s main motive behind the GTAT agreement likely has much to do with facilitating the integration within its supply chain. Rather than immediately releasing products that make heavy use of sapphires, Apple is expected to begin first with simple sapphire integrated glass displays, and then gradually move onto fusing the crystalline material with other major components like touch modules and LCD screens. Compared with the other potentially revolutionary technologies that Apple is looking into (ie. liquid metal), the sapphire-based glass solutions are likely to be the first to exert a tremendous impact on the market.

The current plant where Apple will be installing GTAT’s equipments is based in Mesa, Arizona. In addition to extending its “made-in-the-US” strategy and creating more job openings, the Cupertino company also appears to be planning on increasing the proportion of its automotive production line, as is evidenced by the fact that there will only be 700 employee openings.