Apple’s Aluminum Supply Chain Revolution Hard to Replicate in Sapphire Industry

Will Apple’s mobile device demands revolutionize the sapphire supply chain in the same way as the aluminum industry 10 years ago? Perhaps not, according to a Verge article.

Apple’s demands for affordable unibody aluminum encased laptops, which included MacBook Air and later MacBook and MacBook Pro laptop drove down aluminum manufacturing costs. By introducing aluminum into consumer electronic products and changing manufacturing methods of using a single block of aluminum, the company “made aluminum cool again.”

However, the Cupertino company’s success in the aluminum industry will be difficult to replicate in the sapphire industry mainly because of the material’s physical properties and technology maturation. The process for making sapphire window for instance is “already mature and is unlikely to undergo the kind of revolution that led to cheap aluminum,” Verge quoted Harvard physicist Frans Spaepen saying.

Spaepen’s opinion is backed by high-end smartphone maker Vertu’s head of design Hutch Hutchison. Hutchison highlighted sapphire’s robust properties, which includes highly scratch-resistant and toughness also makes it very difficult to work with. The material can only be cut, grinded and polished using diamond tools, which could raise manufacturing costs. Nokia’s head of colors and materials, Joeske Schellen notes incorporating sapphire into smartphone displays would cost 10 times as much than using Corning Gorilla Glass. Even Vertu, which has more than 15 years of experience making sapphire glass cover smartphones, charges a hefty US$ 5,740 for its 4.7 inch Constellation phone.

Sapphire’s rigid and brittle nature also makes it less malleable than aluminum. HTC former Chief Designer Scott Coyle pointed out during sapphire and ceramic material drop-tests conducted by HTC, “they snap and break into a gazillion pieces."

So what to make out of Apple’s deal with GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT) in November 2013? The set up of the Arizona sapphire manufacturing plant merely reflects Apple’s changing manufacturing policy of focusing on in-house manufacturing and spending less on out-sourcing. The change has been consistent with Apple manufacturing strategies observations by analyst Horace Dediu in 2011 that shows the manufacturer is spending more on acquiring equipment, tools and machinery to make its own devices. Owning the factory is just the next step in Apple’s business strategy, and by mowing down outsourcing there will be few trickle-down benefits for competitors. In addition, the exclusive deal signed with GTAT will also make it difficult for competitors aside from Samsung to replicate.

In the meantime, the new sapphire plant is more likely to be supplying sapphire for home buttons and camera lenses. It is unlikely sapphire yield rates can be vamped up quick enough to meet smartwatch and wearable device demands this year, analyzed material scientists and experts.

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