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Sapphire industry must push harder to crack phone screen market

Yole Développement analysis have charted the obstacles facing adoption of durable sapphire screen covers, showing that immediate use in a new iPhone would be too great a strain on the supply chain

If sapphire is to displace glass in cell phone screens and fulfill its potential to eliminate cracks and scratches, the industry must clear four key hurdles. Yole Développement have found in their latest market report on sapphire material usage beyond substrate wafers for semiconductor manufacturing. Sapphire screen covers must perform consistently; the supply chain must expand significantly; costs must fall; and consumers must value their benefits.

Studies indicate that as many as one in five smartphone users will break their cover glass in the first year. Today sapphire screens exist for the most expensive models, costing from $3,000 to over $1 million. They commonly claim complete unbreakability and unscratchability, while using sapphire also fits their luxury image. Although wider sapphire use in phones has long been touted, maturing substrate manufacturing is now delivering material costs nearer than ever before to broad affordability. Yole Développement understands that there is now interest from handset producers like HTC, Motorola, LG and Samsung, while Apple in particular has performed thorough due diligence.

The improvement in sapphire supply chain capacity and efficiency that has significantly reduced costs has come in part due to increased availability of turnkey crystal growth furnaces. And now GT Advanced Technology (GTAT), a leading furnace supplier, is pushing hard to enable the material’s use in cell phones. But Corning, which produces the Gorilla Glass used in the screens of many leading phone brands, is fighting back. It recently published a video showing that a sapphire screen cover broke more readily than Gorilla Glass after exposure to simulated real-world usage conditions. That result underlines that while sapphire’s fundamental properties make it desirable its durability depends strongly on how it is processed. Early sapphire screens suffered from up to 50% standard deviation in performance. Some producers have identified reasons for this variability, and are improving and stabilising properties, but further work is needed.

The report includes an extensive supply chain analysis, revealing that adoption in the next iPhone would require five times more capacity than is currently installed worldwide. That would need $1.5 billion total capital expenditure, which Yole  feel is too great a strain to currently be viable. But a smoother adoption scenario, where leading producers adopt sapphire in some high end models, looks more feasible. Even then, current established sapphire companies could find it difficult to raise the investment needed to serve this market. However, major phone makers may co-invest with current China-based display cover manufacturers, to retrofit existing glass finishing facilities to process sapphire.

Today a cell phone cover glass costs around $3. Sapphire will always be more expensive than this. Yole Développement has also produced a detailed cost simulation, showing that today it’s possible to make a sapphire cover for around $22. That must fall. In an aggressive and optimistic yet realistic hypothesis we predict that the cost could go down to below $15 within two years, and ultimately could reach $13.

A survey conducted by GTAT claims that consumers would pay up to $30 extra for an unbreakable screen. Manufacturers could charge customers $30 extra for a phone with a sapphire cover and increase their profit margin, or just pass on the extra $10 cost. Charging the same price and absorbing the extra cost might increase market share, with the increased volume offsetting the $10 difference. The smooth adoption scenario would allow phone makers to gauge consumer reactions, sapphire performance, and choose the best strategy. From there, if they are successful, sapphire covers will start ramping up and will be seen in ever more models.

Synopsis courtesy of  Eric Virey, Senior Market Analyst, LED & Compound Semi, Yole Développement

Yole Développement’s non-substrate sapphire market report is now available.


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