Whether Apple can deliver the iPhone 6 with super-tough synthetic sapphire displays is still very much up in the air, according to a press release from a research firm that tracks the materials industry. Unspecified "bottlenecks at various levels" of the sapphire production process mean that Apple may limit this year's introduction of sapphire iPhone displays or possibly even scrap the plan.
Apple is achieving its goal of reducing the cost of the displays, down to about $16 for a finished 4.7-inch cover, according to estimates by Eric Virey, senior analyst with Lyon, France-based Yole Développement, a market research firm, which issued a press release summary excerpting some data from Virey's most recent report, "Sapphire Applications & Market: from LED and to Consumer Electronic report," August 2014 edition. (The full report is available for a charge at the Yole website.)
Apple, and its sapphire furnace partner GT Advanced Technologies, have been adding capacity and ramping up sapphire production at a new factory in Mesa, Ariz. But they face challenges because of the sheer scale of creating sapphire covers for millions of smartphones, possibly in the two sizes that Virey says Apple will introduce later this year: with 4.7- and 5.5-inch screens. Sapphire is second in hardness only to diamond, so sapphire smartphone screens would be more resistant to scratching and breaking than even the treated glass, such as Corning Gorilla Glass, used today. [See our in-depth report "How Apple's billion dollar sapphire bet will pay off" and a companion slideshow on sapphire production, "Here's how Apple is spending $1 billion on sapphire"]
The two companies announced their partnership in November. Yole concluded that the scale of the planned operation meant Apple was moving far beyond using small pieces of sapphire, sourced from existing producers, to protect iPhone and iPad camera lenses, and the fingerprint scanner integrated with the iPhone 5s home button. The investment's goal, according to Yole, "is to produce sapphire display covers for cell phones."
"We believe that prices for the sapphire cover have been agreed upon and locked by contract, based on yield assumptions reflecting reasonable expectations from all partners," Virey says in the press release. "We used yield assumptions derived from other Tier-1 sapphire makers in the LED industry [where sapphire is widely used as a substrate] to model the cost for both sizes. For the finished 4.7" display, we estimate a cost of $16, including $6.7 at the slab (material) level. On the longer term, we see a path for [less than] $13."
Based on those same assumptions, Virey estimates that Apple's supply chain — which has to make big investments in equipment to cut, shape, smooth, and polish a material much harder than the more conventional treated glass covers "could deliver more than 5 million display covers per month."
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