By Matt Margolis

sapphire screen

Apple and GT Advanced Technologies signed their statement of work (SOW) on October 31st ,2013.   The agreement between the two companies does not identify what “sapphire materials” GT will be providing Apple, but I can assure you that the answer is sapphire cover screens.  The only question that remains open is how fast will Apple adopt sapphire cover screens across their portfolio of iDevices.  Apple has purchased, updated and retrofitted a 1.3 million square foot facility in Mesa, AZ for GT to occupy and grow sapphire boules.   Based on a recent report by UBS, GT is growing sapphire boules, coring the boules into a predefined ‘form factor” and shipping the sapphire cores to China to be processed into sapphire cover screens.

During the Q2 2012 conference call (see comments below) on August 2nd 2012,  GT  indicated that they were actively working with several customers and major end market players to qualify and certify sapphire produced from their ASF systems for use of sapphire in handheld mobile devices.  Just 3 weeks later GT signed a confidentially agreement and 14 months later the two companies agreed to a SOW for to produce sapphire materials in Mesa, AZ.  I expect Apple to introduce the iPhone 6 covered in sapphire between June and September, which approximately 2 to 2.5 years after GT indicated their sapphire for mobile devices was being qualified and certified.

One of the most promising opportunities in the consumer market is the broader adoption of Sapphire and handheld mobile devices. GT’s ASF grown Sapphire is particularly well suited for these applications, and we’re actively working with several of our customers and major end market players that have approached us to qualify and certify sapphire produced on our ASF systems as a more cost-effective, scratch-resistant and optically superior alternative to other materials currently in use.

We believe that GT is the only sapphire equipment company capable of quickly scaling to support the quick ramp of quality, cost and sizable volumes that the mobile device market could require as sapphire gains wider market adoption. (GTAT Q2 2012 Prepared Remarks)

I wanted to spend some time focusing on Apple and GTAT relationship in the past just to show how long it took to go from sample testing to market introduction for sapphire cover screens on a mobile device.  The infrastructure and equipment ramp up would have been much less if GT did not engage with Apple but in genera it takes a good 18 to 24 months to go from sampling product to market introduction on a mobile device.

Rubicon’s Acknowledgement that GT will be providing Sapphire Cover Screens to Apple

Rubicon is equipment maker and sapphire producer. Unlike GT, they do not sell their equipment and they are truly a one trick pony.  Rubicon is primarily a sapphire producer for the LED market but as indicated by its management they are growing selling small sapphire cores to its polishing partners.  Rubicon’s smaller diameter cores of sapphire that are being sold for mobile devices are related to  the production of sapphire lens covers, which have been adopted by several phone manufacturers since Apple led the way in 2012.

Rubicon made some very telling comments regarding the sapphire use in mobile devices, specifically the use of sapphire for cover screens during their Q1 2014 conference call (Courtesy of Seeking Alpha).

The use of sapphire in mobile devices is a relatively new application and has a normal potential for growth. Smartphone manufacturers are looking to incorporate sapphire on the exterior of their devices due to the strength and optical characteristics it provides.

Thus far, most of the demand for these applications had come from one manufacturer. However, we believe we will begin to see greater adoption of sapphire in mobile devices. We participate in this market, primarily by selling a significant amount of smaller diameter core to our polishing partners. We are also well positioned to sell larger diameter bulk crystal in a variety of shades and dimension into the market as additional applications develop.

We also believe that we are in the very early days of the use of sapphire in the exterior mobile devices for applications like camera lens covers and home buttons. Based on our knowledge of the marketplace with the exception of one competitor who is building out capacity for a specific customer, none of the existing sapphire producers are planning to add capacity in the current environment and some competition is now leaving the market.

First of all, I think it’s very interesting that Rubicon even tried to cryptically cover up (no pun intended) the sapphire cover screen build out, “one competitor,” who is building out capacity for a “specific customer”.  The translation is GTAT is building out capacity in Mesa, AZ to cover Apple’s devices with sapphire screens.  The other very interesting point is that, “none of the existing sapphire producers are planning to add capacity in the current environment and some competition is now leaving the market”.  This is the clearest indication yet that GT’s build out in Mesa is on track and there has not and will not be a “Mayday Mayday Mayday” call to another sapphire producer to step in and help GT will Apple’s needs anytime soon.   Spare sapphire industry capacity outside of Mesa, AZ is absorbing mobile sapphire growth as well as players leaving the competition all together.

Conclusion

At this point GTAT is on target to supply sapphire screens for Apple devices by the middle of 2014, starting with the iPhone 6 and iWatch and followed later by the refreshed iPod.  It is still too early for me to assess the likelihood that GTAT will supply sapphire cover screens for the iPad, iPad mini and the rumored 12.9″ over sized iPad.  I can tell you Apple’s plans for sapphire do not begin and end with the iPhone and the iWatch but they will extend in some fashion across all of Apple devices, current and future.  Furthermore, it is also clear to me that even Rubicon knows that GT will be supplying sapphire screens to Apple.  Additionally, Rubicon indicated that, “none of the existing sapphire producers are planning to add capacity,” which is a clear indication that Apple and GT have built a moat around sapphire cover screens for at least the next few years.

moat

 

Sapphire Cover Screens: As Apple and GTAT lead the charge others will follow! 

Apple led the way in 2012 with sapphire camera lens covers and the rest followed.  Apple led the way with a sapphire home button in 2013 for biometric scanning and the rest are slowly following.  Apple will lead the way with sapphire cover screens in 2014 and the rest follow, but it might will them a few years or even longer.

If you don’t believe the Obscure Analyst just take a look at what Rubicon said 3 months ago during their Q4 2013 conference call and last week during their Q1 2014 conference call.

 

Rubicon Q4 2013 Conference Call

Apple was the first company to adopt a sapphire camera lens cover and now other smartphone manufacturers are also including sapphire lens covers for their newer models. Apple’s latest iPhone model, the 5S incorporated a sapphire home button.

The switch to sapphire for their home button in the 5S was because sapphire is virtually scratch proof and offers improved touch capacitance, which are important characteristics to ensure the effectiveness of the fingerprint recognition security they have built into the phone. It is our expectation that other mobile device manufacturers will also add similar functionality soon.

Rubicon Q1 2014 Conference Call

The use of sapphire in mobile devices is a relatively new application and has a normal potential for growth. Smartphone manufacturers are looking to incorporate sapphire on the exterior of their devices due to the strength and optical characteristics it provides.

 

Full Disclosure: I am long GTAT and I can’t wait to pre-order my sapphire covered iPhone 6

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Comments
  1. pat says:

    Thanks as always . Interesting!!
    Did you come across this:

    A new report titled “Sapphire Applications and Market: From LED to Consumer Electronics,” which is to be published by France’s Yole Development later this month states that “On November 4th 2013, GTAT and Apple announced a partnership to set up a large sapphire manufacturing plant in Mesa, Arizona. Analyzing the deal Yole Development reached the conclusion that exiting 2014, the plant could reach a capacity equivalent of more than twice the current worldwide capacity.” On March 21, the report goes on sale for US$5,000. .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. pat says:

    Apple Acquires 21 LuxVue Patents with Some using Sapphire, another piece of the puzzle.
    What I really like about tis one is that Doer of KP had invested in it . Visionary guy ….

    Liked by 1 person

    • gtatbrat says:

      During last quarter’s conference call Jed Dorsheimer of Canaccord asked TG if he would comment on sapphire in general and why maybe some OEMs might be interested it.

      It sounded to me like TG, without being specific, went out of his way to let us know there are more benefits to sapphire than the obvious. Here was his response:

      “Jed, I am going to stick to my historical comments on the subject. Obviously I’ve spoken extensively about the fracture resistance and scratch resistance and I have noted that the dielectric properties of sapphire have some value. But beyond that I’d rather not delve into some of the additional properties as they are not in the public domain.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Josh says:

    Matt, my sister went to upgrade her phone this past weekend (verizon I believe) and was told the new iphone wouldn’t be arriving until after the summer. Obviously I cannot confirm this is 100% true since this Verizon employee could be missing information that is still not public or private knowledge. Just thought I would share. It may be better outlook if it comes in September anyway, considering it would give GTAT more time to supply the sapphire for the screens. Just a thought.

    Liked by 1 person

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