Did You Know That with Alan Walter
If there is an everyday item that needs to be scratch-proof and virtually unbreakable, it is the screen of a smart-phone. The smart-phone has become the modern equivalent of the string of worry beads, with normally rational people addictively searching various social media as if some new life-changing message or priceless piece of information has just found its way to their device.
The smartphone has had to stand up to daily use far in excess of the original cellphone. In particular, the wear and tear on the screen has become an industry concern; not only as an overall quality issue, but because of the growing importance of image clarity with some of the newer video services becoming available.
Apple, the maker of the iPhone, iPod, and iPad series of devices is stepping up to the plate with plans to use “sapphire”, an almost indestructible and scratch-proof material to replace the glass screen. Apple Inc. is the largest publically traded corporation in the world with $170 billion annual revenues in 2013. So when it takes aim at a target like this it spares no expense and thinks very big in its plans.
Apple has just begun to manufacture these sapphire screens itself, and not contract out to others as it usually does for components. And it is doing this in the United States, not Asia. It has purchased an Arizona facility with an indoor floor space equivalent to twenty football fields. In this space it is investing $600 million in multiple high-temperature furnaces and other equipment needed to produce synthetic sapphire in vast quantities.
Natural sapphires are precious gemstones and while they come in various colours, depending on what impurities are present, they are pure aluminum oxide. This oxide by the way also appears as the dull grey surface you see when aluminum is exposed over time to the elements. When this oxide is melted down in high-temperature furnaces, synthetic sapphire, which is clear and colourless, is produced.
While there are currently many manufactures of synthetic sapphire, the quantities produced are relatively small and they cater to niche applications like aircraft cockpit windows and bulletproof glass in limousines. Apple already uses small quantities of sapphire, sourced from others, to cover the camera lens and fingerprint reader in the latest iPhones. However, with this new factory running at capacity next year, Apple will produce twice as much sapphire as the current combined output from all the nearly 100 manufacturers worldwide, just to serve its own needs.
Apparently, Apple is considering using sapphire screens in the more expensive models of the two new, larger iPhones it plans to launch this fall, if it can produce enough of the material in time. It is also expected that Apple’s rumoured smartwatch will be equipped with a sapphire screen.
As for the consumer cost of sapphire-equipped devices, some expect that Apple will price them at a premium, given that the forecast manufacturing cost of an iPhone sapphire screen would be around $16 compared with about $3 for the glass version they use now. On the other hand, some say that Apple may choose to absorb this extra cost and use the “sapphire” feature as a way to better distinguish its products from those of its rivals.
Alan Walter is a retired professional engineer living in Oxford. He was born in Wales and worked in Halifax. He spends much of his time in Oxford, where he operates a small farm. His column will appear bi-weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org