updated 02:02 am EST, Thu January 30, 2014
Speculation rises on document describing 'critical new sub-component'
While it was previously known that Apple was working on a new sapphire crystal manufacturing partnership in Mesa, Arizona in partnership with GT Advanced Technologies, thus far few details have emerged on what exactly Apple plans to do with the sapphire glass to be created by the plant. According to recently-published correspondence between Apple and Arizona regulators, the iPhone maker hopes to open the facility as early as next month.
Analyst Matt Margolis tracked down the documents, which mention that the plant -- known in the letters as "Project Cascade" -- would use its high-tech process to create "a critical new sub-component" of an Apple product. The fact that the sub-component is "new" hints that perhaps the product it would be used in is also new, rather than a modification of an existing product. Speculation has circulated that Apple wants the sapphire glass for more than its present uses, which include the Touch ID home button and camera lens glass on the iPhone 5s, up to the possibility of a sapphire glass touch display on a future iPhone.
Sapphire glass is far more scratch-resistant than even the currently-used Gorilla Glass, improving the ability of the iPhone to resist typical signs of wear-and-tear on its touchscreen display. The glass could also be used in other products, depending on how much of the artificial sapphire material can be produced -- for example iPad or iPod screens, or even products like the rumored "iWatch" or used in other unnamed products.
"Project Cascade will conduct high-tech manufacturing of intermediate goods/components for consumer electronics. All finished components will be exported," one of the documents reads. "This high-tech manufacturing process will create a critical new sub-component of Apple Products to be used in the manufacture of the consumer electronics that will be imported and then sold globally. By pulling this process into the U.S., Apple will be using cutting edge, new technology to enhance and improve the consumer products, making them best in class per product type."
That the glass is and will be used in iPhone products was previously revealed through some Apple job postings, and the documents also revealed that the plant will use diamond cutting wire -- used to polish the bezel of the iPhone, iPad and Mac Pro. There have also been unconfirmed reports of Foxconn, Apple's manufacturing partner, creating prototypes of iPhones with full sapphire-glass display screens.
An Apple engineer involved in the correspondence called Apple's plan to take the facility live by February "aggressive," but the use of the term "critical" in the description of the mystery component suggests that whatever product it is used in, Apple would like to have it ready for release later this year -- perhaps in the fall (the traditional timeframe for iPad and iPhone releases).