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Can GTAT revolutionise mobile & LED market with sapphire?

Perhaps. A Chinese firm has invested $29 million in the firm's ASF furnaces
GT Advanced Technologies has received a $29 million follow-on order for ASF units from an existing ASF customer in China.

GTAT ASF furnace

The order is scheduled for delivery by the end of 2012 and the expected revenues included in the company’s 2012 range is $925 million to $975 million.

GTAT believes the units will be used to produce sapphire for the mobile device market.

The company has said that tolerance requirements for mobile device sapphire screens are significantly lower than epi-ready surfaces in HB LED manufacturing and should reduce cycle times and consumable costs.

The firm has also indicated that it and several of its ASF customers have entered into evaluation agreements or are, in conjunction with fabrication partners, actively sampling ASF-grown sapphire screens for use in mobile and point of sale (POS) devices.

GTAT thinks the sapphire mobile device opportunity will contribute to a significant inflow of ASF orders in the second half of 2013.

The company also points out that several factors have driven the recent interest in ASF-grown sapphire as a viable alternative to materials currently used in mobile and POS devices.

These include sapphire’s strength, ruggedness and scratch-resistance as well as its ability to improving user experience.

GTAT says its ASF platform is well positioned to meet the quality and high-volume production requirements for crystal growth for these applications.

The cost of sapphire is expected to be within an acceptable range given its compelling value proposition. GTAT expects that the cost for growing and fabricating sapphire for mobile devices will be considerably lower than for LED applications for a number of reasons.

These include the ASF crystal growth process which GTAT says can be optimised to deliver higher yields of useable material resulting in lower costs when harvested for bricks, screens or cores and wafers.

For a start, fabrication costs have the potential to come down driven by equipment that can slice boules into bricks rather than cores.

Other activities include GTAT working with consumable suppliers and cost reductions from a growing Asian supply chain.

Several fabrication steps may be eliminated when fabricating sapphire for mobile devices including CMP (chemical mechanical polishing) as well as rough and fine lapping, with the latter being replaced by faster grinding processes.

What's more, mobile screen fabrication may allow for the use of existing polishing and grinding equipment capacity at existing large volume subcontractors in Asia, removing the requirement for new fabrication equipment.

As a result, the company believes that sapphire screens for mobile devices, once commercialised, will have a cost of ownership that will be competitive with current solutions.

More specifically, GTAT estimates that a fully fabricated sapphire smartphone screen will be $10 to $20 higher than the price OEMs pay for current screen solutions, with the differential dependent on the level of vertical integration by the OEMs or their manufacturing partners.

Given the compelling overall value proposition of ASF sapphire screens, GTAT says that initial feedback from industry leaders suggests this cost for a superior product will be acceptable.

Factors affecting this may be a lower rate of cracked or broken screens, providing a better overall user experience.

The company also points out that the expected price differential between ASF-grown sapphire and the "current solutions" is less than what consumers typically pay to replace a single cracked screen as well as being less than the cost of screen protectors and protective cases.

GTAT also expects that there will be significant potential to reduce the cost of producing sapphire smartphone screens over time as the industry matures, increases scale, vertically integrates and continues to advance technology innovations at both the crystal growth and fabrication stages.

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