Traditionally employed to make light-emitting diodes (LEDs), sapphire substrates now are being used by Apple Inc. and other smartphone makers as covers for camera lenses and home buttons, contributing to a rapid growth in sapphire demand.
Demand for 2-inch-diameter sapphire ingots used to make substrates will amount to 84 kilometers in 2016, up 166 percent from 32 kilometers in 2012, according to the Sapphire Ingot/Substrate Industry Report from IHS Inc. This year will see particularly strong growth, with demand rising 70 percent to reach 54 kilometers, as presented in the attached figure. Millimeters are a commonly used measure for sapphire ingot demand.
"Apple triggered the current boom in demand when it became the first smartphone maker to employ a sapphire lens cover in 2012," said Richard Son, senior LED analyst at IHS. "Other smartphone brands are now following suit, helping drive the growth of the sapphire ingot market for the next few years. Combined with strong sales from the fast-growing LED lighting market, the increase in demand should help alleviate the oversupply that has plagued the sapphire market in recent years."
Apple first employed sapphire for the iSight camera lens cover in the iPhone 5 in September 2012. The company then expanded its application to the home button of the new iPhone 5s, introduced last month.
For its part, LG Electronics adopted sapphire for the camera lens cover of its Optimus G2 smartphone, introduced in September, 2013. Other handset makers, meanwhile, are expected to offer their own sapphire-equipped models in the near future.
Sapphire substrates are suitable for covering lenses, buttons and displays because they are transparent, yet more scratch-resistant than glass. Glass can become scratched from contact with hard objects, which can degrade the performance of a camera lens or a fingerprint recognition window.
The LED market historically has dominated the sapphire segment, accounting for 90 percent of ingot demand in 2012. Sapphire plays an essential role in LEDs, serving as their substrate upon which they are built.
In contrast, covers for smartphone and other mobile devices in 2012 represented a negligible total of less than 5 percent of sapphire demand. However, this situation is changing rapidly, with covers set to consume 20 percent of total sapphire ingots in 2014.
Despite the rising demand for covers, LEDs remain a major source of growth for the sapphire market.
"Global LED chip makers are increasing their run rates in 2013 thanks to the growth of the lighting market, which is boosting demand for sapphire substrates in LED use," Son said. "However, demand for sapphire substrates from the smartphone market has been climbing as well. These combined demand drivers will help ease oversupply of the sapphire ingot market that had lasted for the past few years, and will significantly contribute to its growth."