back to article Secrets of Apple's mysterious Arizona sapphire factory: Our expert whispers all

As already noted here at El Reg, Apple is spending some of its vast cash pile on setting up a sapphire production plant in Arizona. It has not been silly enough to try and manage the plant itself – that will be the responsibility of partner mineral crystal firm GT Advanced Technologies – but it is providing a vast pre-order …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Just a general plus one for an article that is almost pure signal. I wonder whether the relationship includes some exclusivity like the liquid metal deal ?

    1. perlcat

      Re: +1

      a +1 for your +1.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: +1

        a +1 for your +1 for a +1.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: +1

          I'll +1 your +1 for your +1 for a +1. :-)

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: +1

            Oh, the irony of writing +1 on a forum where you can upvote…

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: +1

      "...some exclusivity like the liquid metal deal."

      But that isn't so exclusive. Apple only has 1 player on lock in, and liquid metal is being produced by more than one company. So, what Apple really has is a loaded gun for when the competition pulls out theirs.

      Sadly, competition doesn't seem to be interested in making better phones, not at all. What they are interested in is putting preexisting inventions on phones and claiming it's "innovation", they couldn't care less about improving the existing quality of them, let alone actually coming up with something unique to the world. I mean this for all players, not just Apple, Google, Sam....

      Of course, without all the bullshit of hobbling around pretending to have done it first, there wouldn't be any patent wars because they would of actually have had done it first.

    3. Tim Worstal

      Re: +1

      Ta v much, most kind of you to say so.

      I shall be around the back polishing my ego while on speed dial to El Supremo asking for a pay rise.....

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        ask for a pay rise

        Go for it. I'll give you another +1 to encourage him.

        And I'll keep your name in mind if I find a bulk supplier of refined scandium. We can split the profits ;).

  2. David Fetrow

    There is Precident

    Sun used to do the same thing with memory chips. They'd want the very fastest even if not quite in mass production. They'd finance the production line with a massive order and have exclusive on the first chips off the line.

    In the case of memory chips that wasn't always so great because 1) The early chips tend to perform subpar and 2) The early chips are expensive so Sun memory was expensive because they frontloaded their supply.

    With sapphire you are more likely to only see #2 and charging a premium is rarely a problem for Apple.

    1. SuccessCase

      Re: There is Precident

      Exactly, this is a good article, but the author has this bit wrong:

      "True vertical integration would mean that Apple would then build its own fab"

      Ownership implies integration but integration does not imply ownership. You seek to own only core business concerns, otherwise you become a de-focused unwieldy last century style industrial conglomerate.

  3. phy445

    What about the reflections?

    Sapphire produces far more reflections than glass. For fancy camera lenses and watches anti reflection coatings are used. The trouble is these coatings are very soft and will soon be wiped off a fondleslab. It will be very interesting to see what Apple do about this...

    1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

      Re: What about the reflections?

      I think that Tim Cook and hence apple are thinking long term. By that, I mean 5+ years.

      Sure the initial yields like silicon will be expensive but if you are making glass for something that sells in the tens of millions rather than the tens of thousands for Sun Memory, the cost per unit over that time comes down to realistic proportions.

      For one part of a device the margins in the early days will be crap bt for that part only. With Apple's overall margins and even if they were to halve thinking lone term and securing supply is critical and to my mind really sensible economics.

      As the article suggests, Apple has enough money to finance a Fab for the next generation silicon. Fabs cost lots of money and are risky. I can't help wonder if this is a trial run for the next big step.

    2. DougS Silver badge

      Re: What about the reflections?

      They could have a stage in manufacturing where they etch a simple pattern into it (I'm talking micron range) so the reflections are no longer incident to the angle of the screen but instead well dispersed over a wide range.

      I'm sure they've thought of this and have a solution if they plan on producing enough of it that they are apparently going to use it for the (or a top layer of) screen glass in some/many/all products.

    3. ckm5

      Re: What about the reflections?

      Quite a lot of quality watches have coatings on the inside. Besides, I've got a 1/2 dozen sapphire fronted watches with AR coatings and not one of them has ever been scratched despite much harsher treatment than most phones...

  4. Dan Paul

    Try Niagara Falls NY for experienced AL2O3 manufacturing facilities

    Perhaps instead of looking for new locations and partners, Apple should try looking at Niagara Falls NY, home of Carborundum, Tam Ceramics, Triebacher Schleifmittel, and Unifrax. Let's not forget we are only 180 miles from Corning Glass, have two great technical Universities in Buffalo (UB and Buff State) and we have Harper Electric Furnace one of the worlds best continuous ceramic furnace manufacturers as well as Praxair Corporate Headquarters for the neccessary inert gases for manufacturing saphire or saphire coated glass.

    In 20 square miles you would have more experience in manufacturing high temp ceramic materials than anywhere else in the US or likely the world. Carborundum practically invented the process of making AL2O3 and this area has been the center of production since the electric process was invented.

    I will bet my ass that New York State would fall all over itself in the race to pay Apple to build here, give them 20 years of tax abatement AND we have MORE CLEAN, CHEAP HYDROPOWER THAN ANYWHERE ELSE!

    Let's see, build something in the middle of frikking nowhere where every raw material and all equipment has to be trucked in and water costs as much as fuel or somewhere that has the highest technically skilled manufacturing people who have the lowest skilled labor costs AND the manufacturers of raw and finshed materials and the equipment needed to make them AND the least expensive costs for power and water and while we are at it everything is all in one place.

    Nah, Apple wouldn't be smart enough to think that way. All they know is new and shiny, not old and experienced.

    1. Frankee Llonnygog

      Re: Try Niagara Falls NY for experienced AL2O3 manufacturing facilities

      Gosh, if only Apple had access to your secret fount of arcane knowledge. Or, perhaps, vice versa

      1. Dan Paul

        Re: Try Niagara Falls NY for experienced AL2O3 manufacturing facilities

        No secret fount of arcane knowledge, anyone who knows anything about manufacturing high temperature ceramics would know that Upstate NY is the place to find the manufacturers, resources and equipment. Why, because this is where the whole frikking industry started. Oh yeah and we ALSO have companies that can make high purity silicon crystals and have chip foundries.

        Ever hear of Corning Glass? You know, the company that just signed a long term contract to make all of Samsungs LCD display glass? Apparently, Samsung got an "A" in "attentiveness in sourcing".

        Trouble is that neither you nor Apple bother to know anything that someone else hasn't told you and Apple would cut off it's own nose to spite Samsung. That's going to catch up with them soon.

        Let's see no more Gorilla glass, no more LCD displays, what else will Apple be stupid enough to screw up next? Oh yeah reading their own market.

        And really, where the hell did you pick that nom de plume? Is that your last name or do you need the Heimlich manouvre?

        1. Frankee Llonnygog

          Re: Try Niagara Falls NY for experienced AL2O3 manufacturing facilities

          Apologies for using sarcasm rather than plain English. Let me make my point more clearly: I feel sure that Apple have access to advanced information retrieval tools (eg Google). To put it another way, your information is what's termed in the UK as "bleedin' obvious". Have you considered becoming an analyst?

          No doubt they've gone with this combination of company and location because it made the best all round business sense. If not, their shareholders would hold them to account.

          As for my screen name, it is an ancient Hindu curse. If you say it aloud, you will instantly become bald, pot-bellied, and middle-aged. Further apologies if the warning has come too late

          1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

            Upvoted for the curse.

            I'll keep that in reserve for when I'm eighty :).

            1. Frankee Llonnygog

              Re: I'll keep that in reserve for when I'm eighty

              Make sure you say it with your false gnashers in. If you try it chopper less, it comes out as "Fankee Wollybob". I'll leave the effects of that spell to your imagination. I'll just warn you, if you try it, make sure you first paste some brown paper over your windows and tighten your bicycle clips.

    2. oolor

      Re: Try Niagara Falls NY for experienced AL2O3 manufacturing facilities

      My guess is Tim is looking more at Sayanogorsk.

  5. frank ly Silver badge

    re, Alumina -> HPA

    Given the market price difference between alumina and HPA, and the likely volumes, wouldn't it make sense for them to make their own HPA? They wouldn't need to make a 'profit' on this stage since their aim is to supply their own saphire crystal cutting operation. It might even make sense to buy up the HPA companies at an early stage to get the expertise in-house.

  6. Tromos

    To obtain the maximum economies of scale, the sapphire glass needs to also be sold at reasonable prices to possible competitors. This is something that I just don't see Apple doing, they'd rather take hit in costs as the faithful can always be relied upon to dig a bit deeper in their pockets.

    1. DougS Silver badge

      They don't need maximum economies of scale

      They just need it to drop in price to where they can add it to their products. There's no reason to expect customers will have to dig deep into their pockets, no one is going to pay an extra $100 for a sapphire screen and they won't be asked to do so.

      1. JaitcH

        Re: They don't need maximum economies of scale

        "no one is going to pay an extra $100 for a sapphire screen"

        Methinks you misjudge iPHANS, they bought malfunctioning iThingies by the million.

    2. Dave 126 Silver badge

      >To obtain the maximum economies of scale, the sapphire glass needs to also be sold at reasonable prices to possible competitors. This is something that I just don't see Apple doing.

      That's the point; the factory that eventually produces the sapphire / sapphire parts won't be owned by Apple, but by their partner; "it's almost vertical integration but not quite".

      There are companies that aren't in competition with Apple who might buy the sapphire. Plausibly products such as lightbulbs or kitchenware might one day make use of sapphire in their construction, just as examples.

      1. Tim Worstal

        One type of lightbulbs already does sometimes. Metal halide bulbs.

        Pretty niche but it does happen.

  7. asdf Silver badge

    woot Arizona

    Yeah my new adopted state gets lots of bad press due to some of our bat s h * t crazy politicians but the state is beautiful and one of a kind. Its not all desert with only barrel cactus and tumble weed. Grand Canyon and also mountain beauty can be found in the northern part of the state. And the Phoenix area is one of the best cities in the country to get stuff done with all the semiconductor plants and such in the area.

    1. JaitcH

      Re: woot Arizona

      Arizona also has thousands of abandoned homes - the nouveau rich type - and an equally amount of serviced lots, with roads.

      Going cheap, too.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: woot Arizona

        I wonder.... are solar furnaces practical in Arizona? Are solar furnaces even suitable for manufacturing smelted materials on an industrial basis?

        I really don't know. Any thoughts?

        1. asdf Silver badge

          Re: woot Arizona

          Solar power sure is (especially with government subsidies). We had a company put solar panels on our house for free and they maintain them and we pay for the power. Cut our electrical bill by about a third (on a 20 year long contract on property with %2 max increase a year).

  8. JaitcH

    Is Apple to sapphire as the Texas Hunt Brothers were to silver?

    Another Apple problem is that it's cash is on the wrong side of the border and crossing that border can be very, very costly.

    35 percent of the imported loot.

  9. a53


    I so just love reading these negative comments here from all the *(multi-billion $) writers who suggest that the infant companies like Apple, Samsung et al won't survive unless the writers' advice is followed.

  10. spider from mars


    This reminds me of kickstarter - the "we could go into production if only we had guaranteed orders" thing

    1. Tim Worstal

      Re: Kickstarter

      That's an excellent point. Thanks for making it.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How about Apple harvesting cow dung?

    Or even Bullshit?

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