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Apple will turn its failed sapphire plant into a data command center

Last year, GT Advanced Technologies, a manufacturer who was going to produce sapphire glass screens for Apple, went bankrupt. This week, Apple announced it will transform the GT facility in Mesa, Ariz., into a global data command center.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Apple will begin constructing a new data command center in Mesa, Arizona in 2016. Here, Apple CEO Tim Cook (R) and China Mobile Chairman Xi Guohua clap at an event for the launch of the iPhone on the China Mobile network.

Apple is planning to build a new data command center in Mesa, Ariz., on the site of its failed sapphire glass manufacturing plant, the state announced on Tuesday.

The new center will be the hub for Apple’s data centers worldwide and for its networks, which handle traffic from iTunes, Siri, and other services.

Apple built the 1.3 million-square-foot factory in 2013, and struck an agreement with GT Advanced Technologies to manufacture sapphire screens, which are highly resistant to scratches, for iPhones and iPads.

But GT had trouble producing screens that were of high enough quality to be used in Apple’s devices, according to The Wall Street Journal. Apple ultimately decided not to use sapphire glass for the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and GT filed for bankruptcy in October 2014.

GT will have vacated the site by 2016, at which point Apple will begin converting the Mesa facility into a new data command center. The project will cost about $2 billion altogether, and Apple will foot the whole bill this time (when it originally built the sapphire manufacturing plant, Arizona paid $10 million to encourage Apple to locate the facility in the state). An Apple spokeswoman said the investment is one of the largest the company has ever made.

Apple’s data centers all run totally on renewable energy, including solar power, and this new command center will be no exception. As part of the construction project, Apple plans to build a large solar farm that can produce 70 megawatts of power – enough to power more than 14,500 Arizona homes.

"This is a great day for Arizona, and we have moved rapidly to make this happen and take advantage of Apple's interest in our state," Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey wrote in a statement. "Apple is by far one of the most innovative and successful companies in the world, [and] this expansion will bring a significant economic investment.”

Although more than 700 employees were laid off after GT filed for bankruptcy last year, the new facility will mitigate the damage somewhat. The state of Arizona said the new facility will create between 300 and 500 construction and trade jobs, in addition to the 150 full-time Apple employees who will work at the site.

It’s not clear yet when the data command center will come online, but since GT will continue to occupy the facility until the end of 2015, construction won’t begin until next year.

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