5 Reasons Why Apple Inc. Won't Put Sapphire Screens on iPads

Apple wants to see fewer of these shattered glass covers -- but at what cost?

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) is building a sapphire screen factory in Arizona. The move could be bad news for Corning (NYSE: GLW  ) , which currently supplies Gorilla Glass for Apple's gadget lineup. If Apple moves wholesale to sapphire screens instead, it'll take the wind out of Gorilla Glass' sails very quickly.

Sapphire is the second-hardest material known to man, just behind diamond. Replacing Corning's specialized Gorilla Glass with sapphire would make the screen unscratchable -- assuming that you don't walk around with your iPhone in a pocket full of diamonds.

But scratch-proof glass isn't everything. Ask Corning's accounting officer Tony Tripeny, who spoke on the matter at a telecom conference this week. Tripeny would like to set the record straight on a few points:

  • Sapphire is about 10 times more expensive than comparable Gorilla Glass slates.

  • Sapphire manufacturing processes use 100 times the energy of Gorilla Glass, running at much higher melting temperatures.

  • The screen formation takes 4,000 times longer.

  • Sapphire is so hard that forming proper screens out of it requires very expensive machinery.

  • Oh, and the extreme hardness against scratches doesn't translate into shatter-proof panels -- Tripeny said that Gorilla Glass can take 2.5 times as much pressure as a sapphire screen before cracking.

And then, once you've formed your expensive sapphire slate, this single crystal is prone to low-manufacturing yields. With glass panes, Corning and others have developed tricks of the trade to get usable end products out of slightly flawed slates. That's not possible with sapphire's single-crystal structure.

But it all comes down to cost. In consumer electronics, costs can make or break a product. So, replacing Gorilla Glass in large screens like 10-inch iPads or even 5-inch iPhones doesn't make much sense. If Apple is hell-bent on using Sapphire screens, Tripeny suggests that it has smaller form factors in mind.

Fact checking Corning's claims
All of this checks out against a sapphire-centric conversation I recently had with a materials engineer. In addition, my source says that sapphire slates have to be split just right, or the crystal structure will start playing tricks with both that supreme hardness and with the ability to let light through the screen.

So maybe we shouldn't expect sapphire screens for Apple's entire range of products. It's true that both Mr. Tripeny and my materials specialist have a bit of bias in favor of Gorilla Glass and against sapphire screens, but their talking points make sense from top to bottom.

Given these parameters, Apple might restrict sapphire screens to fairly small products, like perhaps a revamped iPod Nano -- or that elusive iWatch, where scratch resistance might matter more than shatterproofing or low costs.

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  • Report this Comment On March 06, 2014, at 4:28 AM, luxetlibertas wrote:

    Glaring flaw 1: It is not about sapphire on iPad screens, but on the much smaller iPhone screens.

    Glaring flaw 2: for Apple, due to economies of scale, sapphire will not be 5 times as expensive as Gorilla glass. Even if Apple uses expensive sandwiching techniques combining very thin layers of sapphire and glass, the costs will be modest compared to the whole device.

    Glaring flaw 3: points 2-4 are meaningless, the *absolute* per-screen cost values are the ones that are relevant. These are already captured in the first point.

    The final 5th point is an open question: will sapphire screens shatter more or less often than Gorilla Glass in practice? Tests in Cornings lab do not tell.

  • Report this Comment On March 06, 2014, at 1:44 PM, mineralman wrote:

    Sapphire is the second hardest naturally occurring mineral.

    But it is not the second hardest known substance.

    Boron, boron nitride, rhenium diboride, stishovite, titanium diboride are harder than sapphire. And fullerenes (C60) is harder than diamonds.

  • Report this Comment On March 06, 2014, at 4:53 PM, yellek1 wrote:

    I already sent an e-mail to Mr. Cook advising him of every fact enumerated in your article. I have been making sapphire for 45 years and i am very aware of its properties. I think Apple is making a horrendous mistake if they use just Sapphire. A sapphire composite structure with plastic between would work, but would be even more expensive. I am the founder and owner of ICT, Inc. Shelby, MI

  • Report this Comment On April 08, 2014, at 10:54 AM, TMFZahrim wrote:

    ...just testing something, please ignore.

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