While Apple gets a lot of attention for its $5 billion campus currently under construction in Cupertino, California, it’s not the only billion-dollar real estate project the tech giant is currently working on.
In Mesa, Arizona, Apple is hoping that the third time’s the charm for a massive 1.5-million square foot manufacturing facility.
The Apple-owned plant was previously used as a solar panel manufacturing facility, and then had a short-lived tenure as a location for GT Advanced Technology, an Apple supplier.
Now, Apple is planning to invest $2 billion to convert the plant into a “global command center,” which will not only store iCloud backups and iTunes files, but will also provide oversight of other remote and co-located Apple data centres, the Phoenix Business Journal reported.
But bad luck seems to follow the facility. Last summer, roof-mounted solar panels caught on fire, prompting 50 workers at the plant to evacuate.
Business Insider obtained photos from shortly after that incident, which shows just how massive the facility is, how much damage the solar panel fire actually caused, and just how much work Apple needs to do to turn it into a modern data center:
After GTAT, Apple's sapphire supplier, filed for bankruptcy, Apple was prepared to let the plant, which it owns, go vacant. But Arizona governor Doug Ducey was able to 'steal' the deal out from another city and convince Apple to locate its iCloud command center in the former sapphire plant.
Ducey and his staff met with Apple executives shortly before the Super Bowl in early 2015. Apparently, a dozen Apple representatives told the Arizona governor they were going to pass on reusing the plant. But Ducey had his staff pull an all-nighter and were able to get Apple to agree to go with Mesa.
Apple is planning to start with 150 'high-paid' positions at the command center, but could contract for as many as 300 to 500 more. Apple told Arizona that it plans to send an executive to live in the state full-time.
Part of what makes the data center a 'command center' is that it will be staffed partially by Apple employees and it will oversee other data centres. Apple CFO Luca Maestri told the Mesa mayor that Apple committed $2.2 billion in capital spending over the next 10 years. Apple apparently has made a '30-year commitment' to the region. Apple bought the plant in 2003.
Part of the deal that attracted Apple included significant tax breaks -- up to $5 million per year -- in the form of renewable energy tax credits.
Which is why the roof is mostly covered in solar panels. It's one of these panels that caught fire, which led to 100 firefighters being called to the scene.
Apple says that when the facility is 'fully operational' it will take advantage of 70 megawatts of solar power.
However, Apple says the facility was not operated in 2015. In 2014, it was used to create sapphire for iPhone and Apple Watch screens. However, the supplier, GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT) wasn't able to produce sapphire crystal up to Apple's standards.
The relationship went south quickly, with GTAT executives accusing Apple of forcing it to enter into agreements that weren't fair to it. Apparently, an Apple lawyer, when GTAT balked at the agreement, said that GTAT should 'put on your big boy pants and accept the agreement.' So last summer, GTAT's expensive sapphire equipment just stayed in the plant, unused.
It looks as if some of the sapphire equipment got wet from the water used to put out the fire on the roof.
One of the main reasons that Apple broke off its agreement was that GTAT was unable to produce sapphire at the quality it wanted. These are sapphire 'boules' with defects that made them unusable to Apple.
Apple had its eyes on sapphire because it could make iPhone screens more resistant to scratches, but since GTAT was unable to provide the material, current iPhones still use hardened glass. In November, Apple agreed to a deal to auction off the sapphire-making equipment. GTAT obtained the equipment as part of payment for a $439 million loan.
But much of the equipment was damaged in the fire, which lead to some legal wrangling over the fact that insurance companies told GTAT that the machines were ruined and mostly worthless. Court documents said that 33 machines were entirely destroyed, and 18 others were damaged. The machines cost $280,000 each when purchased new.
The fire did cause large parts of the roof to cave in, and water used to put out the fire definitely made it onto the plant's floor.
But since the flurry of activity surrounding the plant last year, progress has been slower, partially hampered by GTAT's old equipment as well as incidents like the fire. Most recently, Apple posted a single job listing for a data center manager based in Mesa, Arizona in December. That job would include the 'management of all facilities related activities including electrical and mechanical systems at the data center.'
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