Is This Machine Apple’s Secret to Making Low-Cost Sapphire Screens?

This fall, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is expected to release two new iPhone 6 models with larger screen sizes of 4.7 inches and 5.5 inches. While the screen size upgrades for Apple’s next-generation devices have been widely accepted as fact due to several leaked images of display components and other information revealed by sources in the company’s Asian supply chain, there are many other rumors about the upcoming iPhones that are far from settled.

One of the most disputed rumors about the iPhone 6 revolves around Apple’s implementation of sapphire screens. While it is well known that the Cupertino, California-based company has made substantial investments in sapphire manufacturing facilities run by GT Advanced Technologies (NASDAQ:GTAT), analysts are divided over what Apple’s exact intentions are for this durable but costly display screen material.

Evidence collected by PTT Research analyst Matt Margolis suggests that GT Advanced Technologies’ facilities are capable of producing enough sapphire to provide display covers for the 4.7-inch and the 5.5-inch iPhone models, as well as the iWatch. However, many analysts have disputed Margolis’s claims based on the prohibitively high cost of sapphire, which is considerably more expensive than the Corning (NYSE:GLW) Gorilla Glass that is currently used to protect the screens of Apple’s mobile devices. Some of the high cost of sapphire is due to the difficult and time-consuming process that is required to produce a finished screen.

Analysts from JPMorgan recently cited the cost difference between the two materials in a research note obtained by the Taipei Times. “Due to various challenges related to the new cover material, we believe the production output for sapphire covers will be low,” wrote the analysts. “Sapphire ingot yield rates could be as low as below 50 percent for this size, and finished sapphire smartphone covers may cost as much as US$40 to US$45 versus below US$10 for finished Gorilla glass.”

However, a recent report from the MIT Technology Review said that Apple’s sapphire partner may have already solved many of the difficulties associated with manufacturing sapphire. MIT Technology Review’s Kevin Bullis recently visited one of GT Advanced Technologies’ facilities and was shown a new machine that could help make Apple’s sapphire screens much cheaper than previously thought.

Source: GTAT.com

According to Bullis, conventional sapphire sheet production is a time-consuming and expensive process that requires sawing boules of sapphire into sheets. This process may be repeated several times to create thinner sheets, and then those sheets must be grinded and polished to create a finished product. Not only does this method waste time, but it also wastes precious sapphire during the grinding process.

However, GT Advanced Technologies’ new machine can separate the sapphire into sheets much faster and more efficiently than the conventional method. “The machine shoots hydrogen ions at a wafer of sapphire, implanting the ions to a depth of 26 micrometers,” reports Bullis, per MIT Technology Review. “The wafer can then be removed and heated up so that the hydrogen ions form hydrogen gas, which expands and causes a 26-micrometer-thick layer of sapphire to lift off.”

According to Gizmodo’s Spanish-language site, the machine is called the Hyperion 4 and can cut sapphire sheets as thin as 24 nanometers. Besides reducing the overall cost of sapphire by making the manufacturing process more efficient, the machine’s ability to create super-thin sheets of sapphire also means that Apple can laminate its device screens with sapphire at a much lower cost.

And per Eric Virey, a Yole Développement analyst cited by MIT Technology Review, Apple’s cost for sapphire screens could be as little as $6 apiece if it uses a thin layer of sapphire combined with conventional display materials. While the extent of Apple’s sapphire plans for the next generation of devices is still unknown, it appears that one of the primary arguments against the widespread use of sapphire has now been eliminated.

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