By Jim Karpen on Tue, 02/11/2014
Often Apple rumors are speculation based on comments from individuals in Apple's supply chain. However, the news about Apple's forthcoming use of super-hard sapphire crystal isn't rumor. The manufacturing facility has been built in Arizona and is expected to go into production this month, with 700 full-time employees. According to a report on Bloomberg, Apple will be able to produce as much as two times the current world capacity of sapphire crystal. Citing the mayor of Mesa, Arizona, where the plant is located, Apple will be able to make enough sapphire for 80-100 million iPhones. The question is, of course, what will Apple use the sapphire for?
Already the material is being used to provide an unscratchable surface on the iSight camera lens and in the Touch ID feature of the iPhone 5s. It has been speculated that it would be used in place of Gorilla Glass in the iPhone display. But according to an interesting article on Cult of Mac, such a display wouldn't be feasible, since the cost would be several times that of Gorilla Glass. Instead, the article suggests that it would more likely be used as a laminate on Gorilla Glass—less than 1 millimeter thick. In fact, Apple already has a patent for such a laminate. The article says that even this thin laminate would make the display nearly indestructible. Not only would it be impossible to scratch, but also very difficult to break. The article cites an obvious advantage to this: you wouldn't need a case any more to protect your precious device. In fact, the article suggests that Apple might use the laminate on both the front AND back of the device.
Can you imagine? A device that's unbreakable? That would really make it stand out among the competition. And for those, like me, who've had the misfortune of shattering the display, such a development would significantly lower the cost of owning the device. No more glass replacement, no more expensive cases to protect the device.
The Bloomberg article gives some interesting details about the making of sapphire crystal. It's a synthetic sapphire that is made using furnaces. A reaction is sparked in the furnaces which cause the growth of a cylinder of sapphire — a process that takes about a month. These cylinders are sliced to less than one millimeter thick for use on electronic devices. The article also says that the manufacturing facility will require a highly skilled workforce, unlike the unskilled labor used in the factories in China that make Apple's devices. Interestingly, the factory will use renewable energy. You can read more about that on AppleInsider.