updated 10:14 pm EDT, Wed March 26, 2014
Rumors include June startup date, possible expansion plans
Photos and reports from tipsters indicate that Apple's forthcoming sapphire manufacturing plant may already be partially online as construction crews race to finish the building for a targeted June completion date. The building, which is very nondescript in appearance, is located in Mesa, Arizona and was built in a partnership with GT Advanced Technologies, the inventors of a process to manufacture nearly scratch-proof sapphire glass in larger quantities and at lower cost than had previously been available.
Apple is planning to use the sapphire glass in a "new" part that is intended for a future consumer Apple device, reports AppleInsider. Conventional wisdom suggests that Apple is planning to replace the touchscreens on some of its existing products with the new and tougher sapphire glass the GT Advanced plant is likely to produce, though this has not been confirmed. Until recently, producing large-scale sapphire glass sheets on the level a company like Apple would require has been cost-prohibitive.
Apple currently uses sapphire glass to protect the lens on the iPhone 5s as well as the Touch ID sensor. Patents along with the GT Advanced partnership have indicated that Apple has found a way to engineer the material in larger quantities at viable prices. The company's urgency in getting the plant rolling (and it indeed may already be partially active, according to reports) hints at the glass being needed in time for the company's fall release window, which in turn suggests iPhones and iPads will be gaining the material or some other new device.
In addition, trade workers in the area have heard rumors that Apple may be considering expanding the plant or its nearby facilities already, even as crews scurry to finish the building. The scuttlebutt has it that a now-disused building on the site that used to belong to First Solar manufacturing may be acquired and used for some future purpose by the iPhone maker.