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Outlier article on sapphire displays


Sapphire Protected Displays: Going All-In

Apple is heavily invested in sapphire display technology.

Because of the advantages it brings to consumer tech, Apple has taken very deliberate and investment intensive steps to ensure their sapphire display initiative meets their philosophy of Supply Chain superiority. Only now are competitors like Samsung and LG considering the logistics of spinning up their own sapphire display programs. Why Sapphire? The only thing worse than getting that first scratch on your handset display is the first time it cracks when you drop it. In my circle of family, friends, and acquaintances I’m the go-to-guy for level 3 display repair on iPhones and iPads. I can tell you that I have done many repairs.

imageWhile successfully fixing a broken display can be gratifying, it is time consuming and very expensive when you insist on OEM quality replacement parts. By placing a layer of Sapphire on the display window, you can prevent scratches and greatly reduce the probability of fracturing caused by impact.

What are the advantages of Sapphire Protected Displays?

First, it’s very hard–second in line only to diamond. That makes it incredibly scratch and fracture resistant. Compared to Apple’s current solution to display protection, Gorilla Glass, sapphire provides four times the protection against cracks. It is virtually scratch proof. While it does have many industrial application advantages due to its durability, there are disadvantages as well.

What are the disadvantages of Sapphire Protected Displays?

  • Material Production Time and Cost
  • Elevated price-point
  • Manufacturing Technology

The process of creating a 250 pound sapphire boule takes more than 2 weeks. Glass can be melted and cut without time constraints. The sapphire boules require expensive equipment, like diamond saws, to cut. While Corning does have a fully automated process and has invested in state-of-the-art equipment, the immediate ROI is yield. Higher yields drive cost down. Sapphire manufacturing and production technology is just not there yet. The current manufacturing process used by the majority of the industry prevents the ability to cut the sapphire as thin as Gorilla Glass. Apple doesn’t want to make iPhones thicker, they want them thinner. If you have ever watched a WWDC Keynote during a product announcement cycle, you know why.

Sapphire is 65% heavier than glass. Apple doesn’t want to make iPhones heavier, they want them lighter, for the same reason as above. It’s more expensive than glass; three to five times more expensive. Corning says their gorilla glass adds $3 to the cost of a handset. Sapphire can increase the cost $10-$15.

How can Apple leverage it’s Supply Chain and Intellectual Property prowess to mitigate these disadvantages?

First, they have contracted with GT Advanced Technologies to grow enough sapphire to make an estimated 25 million display covers a quarter. To facilitate GTAT’s success in meeting that kind of quantity, Apple paid $113 million for an empty factory in Mesa Arizona. Then they loaned GTAT more than a half billion dollars, $578 million to be exact. Why? To procure the equipment required to operate the largest sapphire crystal growing facility on the planet.

GTAT Is not without risk, however. Apple is not required to purchase a single sapphire crystal from GTAT. If GTAT fails, Apple loss is no bigs in the scope of their $142 billion-in-cash war chest. If they are successful, Apple will have achieved supply chain dominance and exclusivity. This supply side strategy is where Apple can marginalize the competition when they commit to pursue a technology that Apple has already adopted. NAND Flash, Aluminum Uni-Body housing, and Asian Assembly Production are examples of where Apple has deployed this exact strategy.

To address the issue of the physical dimensions of a sapphire window, Apple has patented a process that will cut and even chamfer the edges of the window with a laser. Apple deploys discrete sapphire windows on its iPhone 5S in limited application. The camera lens cover is one, and the Fingerprint scanner on the home button is the other. Scratch proofing the camera lens ensures a great image capture. The fingerprint scanner is protected by a sapphire cover to ensure the durability and life cycle of the biometric security sensor. Where did they get the idea to use sapphire? This part is just my speculation, but it’s not hard to connect the dots.

Finger scanner

First, let’s talk about the sapphire lens on the biometric security scanner. Can you think of something
you see every day that scans a code for identification of a product? The scanners at the grocery store self-checkout do. They have sapphire protection for the same reason the iPhone 5S does. Repetitive dragging of the finger, which has the code imprinted on it, across the sensor could cause wear just like dragging a gallon of milk across the barcode scanner at the check out would. Next, the camera covers. Aircraft, especially UAV’s, use sapphire lens covers to provide transparent protection for sensors housed inside of the hull. These systems require an unobstructed line-of-sight view to the target. Sapphire is used because of its durability and because it has a desirable effect on InfraRed transmissions.

Will Sapphire be the industry standard for consumer tech display protection? That depends on who you talk to. There are folks like Aero-Gear who manufacture and sell after market display protectors made of sapphire. For the iPhone 5S, one retails for about $70. I have seen a demonstration where a concrete block is dragged over an iPhone with one of these protectors on the display, and no scratches were left. Corning, who manufactures Gorilla Glass, the current industry standard for display protection installed at the time of assembly for the majority of smartphone OEM’s, says no. They claim sapphire is great for small applications like watches and camera lenses, but large displays are not a practical application. I’m sure Apple and GT Advanced Technologies are confident but are making absolutely sure they do everything they can to ensure it becomes the new industry standard.


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