Why Apple’s Use of Sapphire Will Be Hard for Others to Copy
It’s no secret that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is influential when it comes to designing consumer electronics — just look at this picture of what smartphones looked like before the original iPhone was released, and then look at them now. This influence also extends to the materials the company uses in its products. When Apple began using aluminum in their 2008 “unibody” MacBooks, the whole aluminum industry got a major jolt as other electronics companies began using the material in their products as well. Now it’s clear that Apple has big plans for sapphire glass, but as reported by The Verge, it won’t be so easy for other companies to follow suit this time.
To see why, let’s go back to aluminum. Aluminum is cheap, abundant, and easy to mold into whatever shape you want to put it in. Once Apple started ordering great quantities of aluminum, the entire supply chain for the material was revved up for anyone wanting to use it in products of their own. Part of that is because Apple was dealing with third-party suppliers and manufacturers, so other companies were able to use those same suppliers to order up large quantities of the material as global production increased.
Apple is handling its sapphire supply differently than it handled its aluminum supply. The company has made a very pricy, exclusive deal with the Arizona-based company GT Advanced Technologies to ramp up its production of sapphire glass. Essentially, Apple will control the factory that makes the stuff, leaving no room for other tech companies to shoulder their way in and make use of Apple’s supply.
Secondly, sapphire is a lot harder to make than aluminum. It requires expensive machines to cook it up, and special diamond-tipped instruments to shape it. One reason Apple had to get so involved in the production process was because no factories exist that are capable of putting out the amount of sapphire glass the company apparently plans to use.
At current production rates, sapphire glass is expensive, which has restricted its use mainly to things like the faces of expensive watches and semiconductors. Apple already uses small amounts of sapphire glass on the rear camera lens in the iPhone 5 and 5S. It also uses it on the Touch ID fingerprint sensor in the iPhone 5S.
But you don’t fund a whole new sapphire factory if all you need to do is produce small bits of the material. Maybe Apple plans to use sapphire glass in place of the Gorilla Glass it has long used for the display of the next iPhone. Maybe it will use sapphire on the face of the heavily rumored smart watch it’s almost certainly planning to release this year.
Either way, because this new supply of sapphire is completely controlled by Apple, other companies won’t be able to take advantage of it like they did with aluminum. As an added benefit for Apple, dealing with fewer outside manufacturers could lead to fewer product leaks of the kind that have prematurely revealed many of its recent products and features.
Whatever Apple has planned for its upcoming supply of sapphire glass, it won’t be easy for other companies to copy it.