The huge sapphire production facility that Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) is currently building in Mesa, Arizona, known by the name of “Project Cascade,” is already producing sapphire crystal as quickly as possible despite being only partly constructed. What is more, construction at the site is ongoing, and reports indicated today that the Cupertino firm is arranging contracts with construction firms to expand the facility before it is even completed, indicating that sapphire displays are likely to be used in large numbers, possibly for multiple products.
Intriguingly, the expansion is said to be related to a secret project, according to TechnoBuffalo, which would seem to indicate that another major product launch besides that of the iPhone 6 is planned for the near future. This project is clearly not small-scale, since the number of furnaces for creating sapphire boules to be sliced into displays jumped from a previous estimate of 950 to the current planned total of 1,700.
This represents a near-doubling of capacity, and though some of these furnaces are likely earmarked to make material that will be used for iPhone 6 displays, there is clearly a plenitude of manufacturing capacity on the docket. The partly completed and newly started facilities should all be fully constructed and operational by June. Bids are being requested from local construction firms, and Rosendin Electric and Graybar Electric will apparently be among those companies involved in powering the facility.
Tim Cook clearly mentioned the existence of a secret project at the annual shareholders’ meeting last month, but his words were vague enough to leave nothing but a cloud of speculation in their wake. A new size of iPhone (now confirmed as a reality) and the much rumored iWatch are two favorites as the item referred to in Mr. Cook’s statements. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that the “secret” is a true dark horse, something that nobody outside the secretive Apple (AAPL) offices even suspects. Suppressing rumors and leaks about such a project would be a monumental undertaking. Such exotic outliers as a full screen Apple television (iTV?) with a sapphire display or a radical new tablet or notebook design are not wholly out of the question, however.
Some clues about the possible uses of all this new sapphire capacity come from the material itself. Its chief advantage is that it cannot be scratched by steel, making a display fashioned from manufactured sapphire practically scratch-proof. Since the material is expensive to make – even with the money saving economies of scale expected from the Mesa plant – it makes sense to only put it where scratching is likely. This limits use to mobile devices, which may end up in a pocket, purse, or attache case along with other objects that could score their surfaces. A sapphire TV screen seems superfluous, since televisions seldom come in contact with loose change, keyrings, or pocket knives.
Regardless of the exact project planned, Apple (AAPL) clearly needs a lot of sapphire in a hurry. The partly constructed facilities in Mesa are already running at maximum possible capacity using a huge array of portable generators for temporary power. Steve Jobs’ brainchild does not take half measures, and investors will continue to watch developments as a sign of possible opportunities offered in the near future by product releases from the world-famous electronics giant.