Boston-based mobile and tablet blog, Pocketnow, toured the Salem, Mass., plant where GT Advanced Technologies grows sapphire crystals, similar to the ones GT will be growing for Apple in a new Mesa, Ariz. plant. (Credit: Pocketnow; YouTube.)
On Monday GT Advanced Technologies (Concord, N.H.) announced its third quarter financials and that it had signed a multiyear deal to supply sapphire to Apple. Monday’s press release says without fanfare, “GT will own and operate ASF furnaces and related equipment to produce the material at an Apple facility in Arizona where GT expects to employ over 700 people.” The deal provides for Apple to advance GT $578 million, which GT will pay back over five years starting in 2015.
By Tuesday the Apple-related blogosphere erupted with the speculation that usually attends every step Apple takes. Also typical of most-things-Apple, reliable information is nearly impossible to ferret out. Nonetheless, I’ll share with you the bits I know.
According to a report on azcentral.com, Apple recently purchased a plant First Solar built in Mesa, Ariz., but never occupied. Solar industry followers will recall that First Solar hit some hard times in mid-2012 and restructured its business, which involved reducing its global workforce by 30 percent and trimming costs by $30-60 million in 2012 and more in the following years. As 2012 drew to a close, the company was looking for a tenant and eventually sold it a few months ago to an “undisclosed buyer.”
The deal with Apple calls for GT to own and operate a fleet of its ASFs—Advanced Sapphire Furnaces—which the company developed for LED applications. While GT won’t say anything specific about the sapphire crystal growth technology they are providing Apple, the company’s website says the AFS can grow a 100-kg crystal boule in less than 18 days with an annual production capacity of more than 100,000 TIE per furnace.
GT’s website describes it as a provider of “innovative crystal growth equipment solutions for the solar, LED, and consumer electronics industries.” These solutions include processing equipment for polycrystalline silicon for photovoltaics, sapphire crystal growth furnaces, spark plasma sintering systems, hot presses, and other high-temperature processing systems.
In a prepared statement, GT’s president and CEO Tom Gutierrez says, ““We are very excited about this agreement with Apple as it represents a significant milestone in GT’s long-term diversification strategy.”
While company officials declined to comment, GT appears to have been positioning itself for awhile for this development. In May 2013 GT announced it had acquired Thermal Technology LLC (Santa Rosa, Calif.), also a manufacturer of thermal processing equipment for products such as smartphones, touch screens, LEDs, etc. In the press release announcing the acquisition, Gutierrez said, “In areas such as sapphire crystal growth, we can now offer customers a wider range of product options best suited to their specific production environments. This will enable us to compete for incremental business in areas where we would have previously been unable to offer a product.”
Sapphire is already installed on newer iPhones (see large image above; Credit: Apple) as a camera lens protector and to protect the iPhone 5 fingerprint ID sensor. Speculation is that the company wants to replace smartphone touchscreen glass with sapphire, as evidenced by a patent filing by the company in March 2013 (hat tip to iDownload blog) for laminated sapphire. The patent application makes claims for sapphire-to-sapphire laminates where “at least the matching edges of the two sheets have different crystallographic orientations.” The patent application also makes a claim for sapphire-to-glass laminates.
The cost of sapphire for touchscreens is a challenging issue. According to a video tour of GT’s Salem, Mass. plant by Boston-based Pocketnow, a sapphire touchscreen for a smartphone costs about $30 compared to $3 for a Gorilla Glass touchscreen.
The new plant is expected to bring 700 jobs to Mesa and another 1,300 construction and related jobs, according to a press release from the Arizona Commerce Authority. The press release also indicates the plant will draw on renewable energy resources for the manufacturing processes.
The popular press is propagating one piece of misinformation by describing GT’s product as “sapphire glass.” Not possible, as we know. As the video above makes clear, GT is in the crystal growing business, not the amorphizing business.
The video by Pocketnow above contains some inaccuracies, according to Jeff Nestel-Patt, GT’s director of marketing. However, he was not at liberty to reveal what they are. With that caveat in mind, the video provides a pretty good overview of the crystal growing process.
I’d say “stay tuned for more news,” but the Apple “cone of silence” is nearly impenetrable.