Apple's "Brick" manufacturing rumors - not so revolutionary?

Rumors are buzzing that Apple has been working on a revolutionary manufacturing process involving lasers and waterjets and solid blocks of aluminum for the upcoming MacBooks.

Rumors are buzzing that Apple has been working on a revolutionary manufacturing process involving lasers and waterjets and solid blocks of aluminum for the upcoming MacBooks. The contention is that the rumored "Brick" product actually refers not to a product itself, but the manufacturing method for the MacBooks.

Site 9to5mac, who originated the rumor, state:

It is the beginning of the new Apple manufacturing process to make MacBooks. It is totally revolutionary, a game changer. One of the biggest Apple innovations in a decade.

The MacBook manufacturing process up to this point has been outsourced to Chinese or Taiwanese manufacturers like Foxconn. Now Apple is in charge. The company has spent the last few years building an entirely new manufacturing process that uses lasers and jets of water to carve the MacBooks out of a brick of aluminum.

They go on to cite the following advantages:
- Carving out of aluminum eliminates the need to bend the metal and create weak spots or microfolds and rifts.
- There are no seams in the final product, so it is smooth.
- Screws aren't needed to tie the products together.
- The shell is one piece of metal so it is super light, super strong and super cheap.
- You can be a whole lot more creative with the design if you don't have to machine it.

In reality, Apple has been using laser and waterjet methods for quite sometime, for example the glowing LED that appears behind a "solid" front face of the MacBooks is apparently achieved with laser-cutting to thin out and partially perforate the wall in that one area.

So there is nothing particularly novel about user laser and waterjets as they are used frequently in smaller size production runs of the tens of thousands. The difference is scaling them up to the hundreds of thousands that Apple produces in.

(I should note here that although Apple and frog design, where I work, worked together in the 1980's and pioneered injection molding techniques with plastic that are now commonplace on computer products, I don't have any insider knowledge whatsoever on this rumor.)

For example, if you look at the iPod Shuffle you can tell it is hogged out aluminum. On such a small product this is do-able. On a large product like a laptop this would typically result in a massive amount of waste (so kiss your green credentials goodbye). And the notion that this is somehow cheaper than stamping thin sheets or molding plastic is completely wrong - it's much more expensive.

However, starting from a solid piece of aluminum allows tighter tolerances and mechanical features that can't easily be achieved with molding, stamping or extruding. If you look carefully at these pictures of a MacBook Air that Gizmodo took apart, you can see some bosses and undercuts that would be difficult to do with typical molding techniques. But there are some more exotic methods like hydroforming and near-net casting that are more common in aerospace and military contexts could probably achieve the same result. Another example of a company investing in manufacturing IP to give it a competitive edge is Shimano, who has built up expertise in super-thin wall, super high tolerance hollow forging for its bike components.

But given the complexity of the components that need to get tightly mounted inside a laptop casing, and the number of ports and so on that need to be exposed to the outside, it's unlikely that it will literally be a hollowed out block of aluminum. And even if it was, it would not particularly help much with weight (it's still aluminum) compared to the stamped case of the current Aluminum MacBook Pros.

(And though 9to5mac makes a big deal out of "aircraft grade aluminum", there's nothing particularly exotic about that these days either, it's quite a commonly used material).

What's remarkable is how Apple is scaling up techniques normally used for limited production runs - limited because they are more expensive on a per-part basis. But clearly Apple has been figuring out how to get the economies of scaling, and picking off certain techniques one by one to try them out on successive product introductions. A new MacBook makes sense to bring several of them to culmination as a flagship product.

Having said that, and not discounting Apple's ability to go beyond the bounds of what others pull off, going by the 9to5mac article there isn't necessarily anything very revolutionary being described.

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