Apple’s old sapphire nightmare continues with new lawsuit

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Apple is gobbling up sapphire supplies at an alarming rate of knots. Photo:
Apple is facing a lawsuit from one of the companies in its sapphire supply chain.
Photo: GT Advanced Technologies

Despite seemingly dropping plans for a sapphire display for the iPhone, Apple continues to be haunted by its brief venture into manufacturing using the material.

In addition to Apple’s sapphire supplier GT Advanced Technologies going bankrupt several years back, this week Apple was handed a lawsuit by manufacturer Hebei Hengbo Fine Ceramic Material. The company claims to have fallen out with Apple over terms for a contract involving high purity alumina melt stock, a material used as part of the sapphire process.

News of the lawsuit was broken by Apple Insider. Few details are known about the exact terms, but it seems that Hebei Hengbo wants to revoke an existing deal with Apple and collect damages for a breach of contract. Should this not be possible, the company wants Apple to stick to the original deal it signed.

No figures are mentioned in the paperwork, but for it to be heard by a U.S. federal court those damages must exceed $75,000, which is the statutory threshold for civil cases.

Apple’s messy sapphire glass history

Back in 2014, sapphire glass displays were rumored to be one of the many exciting features of Apple’s then-unreleased iPhone 6 and 6 Plus generation handsets. One survey from the time showed that that most-wanted feature from consumers in the iPhone 6 was a sapphire display.

To try and make this a reality, Apple signed a deal with GT Advanced Technologies in November 2013. The deal included a $578 million payment from Apple to help speed up “the development of its next generation, large capacity ASF furnaces to deliver low cost, high volume manufacturing of sapphire material.” This would take place at a plant in Mesa, Arizona.

Unfortunately, things unravelled behind the scenes. Apple withheld the final $139 million payment, supposedly because it was unhappy with how GT was progressing. Yield rate was said to be disappointing — at around 25 percent or less. In early October 2014, GT suddenly filed for bankruptcy. Subsequent court documents blamed Apple for its “imposed oppressive and burdensome terms and obligations on GTAT” which made its, “continued performance” no longer “a viable business option.”

At present, Apple uses sapphire in certain Apple Watch displays, Touch ID fingerprint sensors, and protective covers for iPhone’s rear-facing cameras. However, as far as we’re aware, it’s not revisited the idea of sapphire displays for iPhones.