Corning: Sapphire Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

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An executive from glass maker Corning (NYSE:GLW) took the stage at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference on Tuesday to say that the company’s Gorilla Glass is a better material to be used in consumer electronics than sapphire crystals. Rumors have been swirling that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is planning to switch to sapphire for the display in the next iPhone, as the company has recently purchased a sapphire manufacturing plant in Arizona to make the scratch-resistant material.

Tony Tripeny, a senior vice president at Corning, spoke to analysts about the sapphire issue at the conference. “When we look at it, we see a lot of disadvantages of sapphire versus Gorilla Glass. It’s about 10 times more expensive. It’s about 1.6 times heavier. It’s environmentally unfriendly. It takes about 100 times more energy to generate a Sapphire crystal than it does glass. It transmits less light, which it means either dimmer devices or shorter battery life. It continues to break.

“I think while it’s scratch-resistant product, it still breaks, and our testing says that Gorilla Glass, about 2.5 times more pressure that it can take than Sapphire on. So when we look at it, we think from an overall industry and trend that is not attractive in consumer electronics,” he said in response to a question about how the rising popularity of sapphire would affect Corning and electronics consumers, per Seeking Alpha.

Analysts went on to ask Tripeny why sapphire has become the hot new material to use in electronics besides being slightly more resistant to scratches. “It has got a very sexy name,” Tripeny said. “Marketing matters.”

Current iPhone generations use Corning’s Gorilla Glass, but it has been widely reported that the iPhone 6 will be updated to have a sapphire display. Apple made a $578 million investment in a sapphire manufacturing facility run by GT Advanced Technologies last year, and import-export documents uncovered by 9to5Mac’s Mark Gurman and analyst Matt Margolis strongly suggest that the plant will be producing sapphire displays for the next-generation iPhone. Apple already uses sapphire as a protective covering for the Touch ID fingerprint scanner and on the lens for the iPhone’s camera.

Rumors have also suggested that the screen on the next-generation iPhone will be even larger than current models, with some saying that the device will come in two larger screen sizes. The most recent reports have suggested that the new iPhone will be available in a 4.7-inch screen or a phablet-sized 5.5-inch screen. Bigger screens made with sapphire mean that Corning is missing out on even more business in Gorilla Glass sales.

Tripeny seems to think that Gorilla Glass’s performance and cost will make the material win out in the end. “So I think in general, in consumer electronics, cost really matters. We have a ten times cost differential. I think that’s really tough. So we think that, combined with performance actually we will, over time, win the day, but obviously we have prove that. As we announced a couple of weeks ago, we are trying to launch of new version of Gorilla later this year, primarily to have better drop performance,” he said during the Tuesday conference.

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