Apple’s Mysterious Sapphire Plant Is Already Getting Bigger

Source: Thinkstock

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is already planning to expand the sapphire manufacturing plant based in Mesa, Arizona, that the California-based company is leasing from GT Advanced Technologies (NASDAQ:GTAT), reports Apple Insider.  According to unnamed “people close to the project” cited by the publication, the iPhone maker is currently fielding bids from several construction companies to build another structure next to the existing plant, which is still being built. Apple Insider’s sources suggested that the upcoming structure might be built directly behind the current facility.

As revealed in GT Advanced Technologies’ third-quarter report from last year, Apple paid $578 million “in advance for the purchase of sapphire goods” and entered into a lease agreement for the sapphire plant in Mesa. Although it is still unknown what type of sapphire component Apple will be producing at the plant, many industry watchers have speculated that it will be making displays for Apple’s next-generation iPhone models or long-rumored iWatch device. Apple currently uses Corning’s (NYSE:GLW) proprietary Gorilla Glass for its iPhone displays. However, sapphire is a harder and more scratch-resistant material.

In Foreign Trade Zone documents first uncovered by 9to5Mac’s Mark Gurman and analyst Matt Margolis, Apple Deputy Director of Global Compliance Jim Patton noted that the sapphire plant would produce a “a critical new sub-component of Apple Products to be used in the manufacture of the consumer electronics that will be imported and then sold globally.” Apple currently only uses sapphire as a protective covering for the Touch ID fingerprint scanner and the iPhone’s camera lens.

However, the planned expansion suggests that Apple will be producing large quantities of an as-yet-unknown sapphire component. Although the current plant structure is still being completed, it is already operational. According to Apple Insider’s sources, the current structure will become fully operational with 1,700 sapphire furnaces when the construction project finishes around June.

Although it is still unknown what Apple’s sapphire is ultimately intended for, a recent Apple patent application titled “Oleophobic Coating On Sapphire” described an oil-repelling coating that is primarily intended for touch-sensitive input surfaces. Apple’s patent may be a clue that the company is planning on using sapphire displays for some type of iOS device.

Earlier this year, sources cited by the Taiwan-based Apple Daily reported that Apple supplier Foxconn — also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry — successfully completed a trial production run of about 100 iPhone prototypes with sapphire displays. However, the rumor was never corroborated by any other media outlets.

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