What’s Up With Apple and Liquidmetal Technologies?

| Just a Thought

This is interesting: The Baltimore Sun says that Apple has entered into “an agreement” with a company called Liquidmetal Technologies. They make patented metal alloys that sport properties similar to ceramics and plastics, which means the metals they make can do some interesting things. By “interesting” I mean that these alloys can outperform steel and titanium in a variety of ways and can be molded and processed like plastics.

Big whoop, right?

Well, yeah, it is a big whoop. Watch the ball bouncing kinetic energy demonstration  to see just how different Liquidmetal’s metals are. These alloys are already being used in bleeding edge designs and technologies in various markets, and now Apple is interested.

Before walk away thinking, “OK, Apple’s next iPhone will bounce back into your hand, unscathed, when dropped. Cool!” I implore you to think outside the…er, bounce.

Take a look at Apple’s current design metaphor, almost everything they make revolves around their new unibody hull, where the body of the device is carved out of a single piece of metal. Macbook Pros have a unibody, so does the iPad, and now the Mac mini.

Do you see a pattern here?

Right now, every unibody chassis has to be machined, and machining, even at the volumes that Apple produces, cost money.
 
Now, what if, instead using machine bits, Apple could create its unibody bodies using molds and Liquidmetal alloys? They would have the technology to make the new molded chassises better, lighter, stronger, and more resilient than before. And it wouldn’t cost $6 million dollars.

That could mean less expensive Macbooks, iPads, and Mac minis (oh my!), but likely it would mean bigger profits for Apple.

Yeah, you can see that happening, right? Well, put on your tinfoil beanie folks, cuz here’s a wrinkle you might not have thought of.

What if Apple decided that it wanted to go toe to toe against current and future PCs on everything including price? What if Apple devised a deviously simple scheme to become the greenest PC maker on the planet, and, while doing so, make it harder for users to leave the protective glow of Apple Shangri La?

Here’s where the tinfoil beanie comes in: What if Apple decided to offer users hardware upgrades to the existing unibody devices? Users would bring in their device to an Apple Store or send it to Apple via a prepaid mailer, and get back the latest and greatest Apple innards.

The logic for this is surprisingly sound. All of those unibody devices Apple has been selling don’t need to change when Apple pumps up the internals. Apple controls the whole thing from mouse to monitor. If there’s any computer maker who could pull something like that off and be successful it would be Apple. It has the brick and mortar infrastructure, the supply lines, and the expertise.

The benefits would be phenomenal. New product designs could occur in five year cycles, saving money. Longer new product testing cycles would mean near bulletproof hardware. Apple could lead the industry in recycling old devices. They could reduce the cost of processing, shipping, packaging, and more.

Imagine Apple offering a new internal hardware upgrade. You walk into an Apple Store, pick the type of upgrade you want, then buy the upgrade for 1/4 less than what you’d pay for a “new” computer. An Apple rep takes your MacBook, pops out the keyboard and underlying guts, pops out the display, plops in the new guts and display while you watch, fires up the updated MacBook and insure all your stuff made the transition intact, and 10 minutes later you walk out with a familiar friend on the outside with new speedy guts on the inside.

The likelihood of this happening is a bit more than remote, but it would sure set the PC industry on its ear if it did. It’s more likely that Apple will be happy with the savings it realizes from using molded unibodies versus machined one.

Maybe it’s not such a wild idea after all.
 

Comments

xmattingly

Next up for iOS devices: Transparisteel. :D

MOSiX Man

Next up for iOS devices: Transparisteel.

Dang it! You beat me to my ‘transparent aluminum’ comment.

On another note… While making a phone from a metal that can store that amount of kinetic energy may make it less prone to damage, I see one potential problem with it. Imagine what would happen if the phone is set to vibrate! buzz… buzz… BUZZ… BUZZZZZZ!!!! It could rip right out of your pocket or cut through a wooden desk, and you could do serious damage to your hand when trying to pick it up and shut off the buzz. Then again… this could make the iPhone into one heck of a ‘back massager’. :D

TampaTom

This will be a game changer !

This material is amazing.  Yes, the ball in the video bounces but the fact that it absorbs and redirects energy means the material is VERY scratch and dent resistant.  It is also radio frequency transparent, which is huge with Apples’ iPhone and iPad lines.

Apple has effectively shut out the competition for ALL consumer electronic products with their exclusive rights as outlined below:

On August 5, 2010, Liquidmetal Technologies, Inc., a Delaware corporation (“Liquidmetal”), entered into a Master Transaction Agreement with Apple Inc., a California corporation (“Apple”), pursuant to which (i) Liquidmetal contributed substantially all of its intellectual property assets to a newly organized special-purpose, wholly-owned subsidiary (the “IP Company”), (ii) the IP Company granted to Apple a perpetual, worldwide, fully-paid, exclusive license to commercialize such intellectual property in the field of consumer electronic products in exchange for a license fee, and (iii) the IP Company granted back to Liquidmetal a perpetual, worldwide, fully-paid, exclusive license to commercialize such intellectual property in all other fields of use (together with all ancillary agreements, the “Master Transaction Agreement”).

John Dingler, artist

Hi Vern,

The unibody may have to become tripartite, say,—while each of the three parts still bored out in the new way—thus negating the advantages, as originally envisioned, of the unibody design, this, in order to be able to accommodate the new shapes and sizes of updated internal components developed within that speculative five year period.

In order to accommodate customers who may want to upgrade the inner components but not the body, it seems to me that each Apple Store would, therefore, need a machining device to alter the body, requiring the employment of a machinist who would need to be Apple certified.

Also, one of the charms of Apple computers are their changing outward designs which occur less than every five years, it seems to me, so keeping the outside static for five years would force Apple to alter its design paradigm which, in part, depends on an ever-changing exterior look.

However, I like your idea to cut costs which seems to me an original one.

MOSiX Man

More seriously, I’m not sure whether or not the whole ‘just replace the innards to upgrade’ idea would fly - for a couple of reasons:

1) People buying computers - especially every-day consumers - like to buy the cool, new looking stuff. If only the internals and maybe the display quality changed, Apple may loose a lot of its street cred for making really awesome, industry leading designs.

2) Just because the exterior of one year’s MacBook may look identical to the following year’s MacBook, if the internals were upgraded then the mountings and internal structure of the case may actually be somewhat different. If Apple were to try to work around having the same cases with the same internal mounts and spaces, year after year, it may prevent them from adding something innovative, just because it wouldn’t fit.

John Dingler, artist

Hello Tampa Tom,
I read that the Liquidmetal agreement with Apple is exclusive; “IP Company granted to Apple a perpetual, worldwide, fully-paid, exclusive license to commercialize such intellectual property in the field of consumer electronic”, allowing Liquidmetal to come to similar agreements with other other companies which do not reside within consumer electronics similar to Apple’s, which would exclude Dell and HP, for examples, but not the warmonger or any dissimilar industry.

However, and aside from this, it seems to me that it would be unwise for any company to write such exclusive agreements, especially for a company who is presumably trying to distribute its new technologies as widely as possible in order to gain market share as well as stock value, unless it’s confident enough to limit itself in this way.

Coward

Clearly SkyNet has infiltrated Apple and is getting ready to build the T1000.

Yacko

Couple of points from LiquidMetals web site:

1) This is due to the lack of phase transformation from the molten metal state during solidification. In addition, Liquidmetal alloys have very low melting temperature relative to their constituent metals. As a result, it is possible to fabricate Liquidmetal alloys in intricate and sophisticated designs without costly post-finishing processes.

2) The above mentioned qualities, specifically the availability of superior properties in as-cast form and low melting temperature, provide exceptional opportunities for processing Liquidmetal alloys in composite forms with a variety of reinforcements. The near-net shape processing characteristics of Liquidmetal alloys make the fabrication of highly sophisticated and sound composite structures possible.

This stuff is more versatile than anything out there.

I also note from the reports of the Digitimes rumors about the Verizon CDMA phone:

“The CDMA iPhone’s back plate will be forged from metal materials and will feature an integrated antenna, according to Digitimes Research.”

Hmmm… maybe it’s a good rumor and maybe this metal technique is relatively porous to radio waves, at least at certain frequencies.

aardman

I would love for Apple to offer the ability to upgrade your device without having to replace the shell/chassis.  Might end up not commercially viable though because disassembly probably cannot be done at the same productivity/efficiency level as assembly.

exAppl088

Very thoughtful ideas, Vern!

I think there are some short term upgrade uses for a mouldable metal
alloy.  How about just replacing the external wrap around steel frame-
antenna with a Liquidmetal alloy frame (of multiple layers)? IE an outer
layer of which is RF conductive alloy for the antenna’s and an inner insulator
layer?  This would be useful for the iPhone, iPad, iTouch, ...

Apple would use this first on a mobile devices, maybe later on Mac mini
or Apple TV.  I am dubious, that at first, this technology would be cost
effective for laptops due to their size. 

Any new technology like this is always more expensive, at first,
due to low production volumes and getting the bugs out of a new
production process (yield %), setting up new production plants (capital $),
debugging design vs production problems of using a new technology that is,
despite vendor representations, not “just like plastics” in production,  etc, etc.
(the realities of production engineering).

tony

Does “low melting point” translate into good heat sink material? I think the temperature issues with MBP etc. are still an issue.

Oh, and is it recyclable? It must be to fit in with the green ethic now prominent in the product line…

Be interesting if this also revolutionizes speaker design… Apple could totally cut out a chunk of the speaker market.

N8nnc

I’m not sure this makes sense. But it is interesting to note that it only makes sense if you believe you have the right form factor for a long time. In iPad, I think apple does. One could argue that notebooks and slab/candy-bar cellphones have converged on stable form factors.

My main qualm is that the envisioned swap-out sounds labor intensive, and (local) labor is expensive.  It also seems like the market rewards more rapid appearance changes.  I was seeing liquidmetal as a way to lower manufacturing costs (casting vs. machining), lower weight, increase internal volume for a larger battery, and improve exterior wearability.  I wasn’t aware of the RF transparency (now I can have sugar-plum fairy dreams about that). I’m sure Apple will do something good with it…

Vern Seward

I remember reading a scifi story when I was a kid in which the best spaceships had hulls from this one planet. Every other hull was inferior.

Many sim-games follow the same idea; you can modify your car, spaceship, robot, whatever by upgrading the “hull” or body. Everything else is accessories.

It sure seems to work on paper, I guess the reason such a product cycle doesn’t exist in real life because there’s not enough money in it.

PCs were almost that way. You could, and still can buy the pieces and part and build your own, but chassis tend to be cheap because people who build their own PCs want cheap chassis. And why not? PCs use to sit under the desk. That’s it. No need for anything more than cheap metals and plastics.

Mobile devices, on the other hand, need to be a bit more robust. Build a better chassis and people may want to hold on to it. Tablets may be just the thing to get that economy moving.

I’d be happy to take my iPad to an Apple Store and have them swap the guts for something faster and with more features.

Perchance to dream…

Vern Seward

N8nnc

I’m getting more into this as I think about it. I still think the design cycles will be as fast (or faster) than today, but this gives customers a new level of choice. If you want the better performance, you can buy the new product or you can swap out the innards of your current one. If you really like the feel of your cuurent one, you can stick with it. If liquidmetal turns out to be undestructinum, then you can keep going for awhile (on my 2000 PowerBook g4 the chassis & display are still great, but the performance…) If you are strongly motivated to reduce-reuse, then you have a way to exercise your choice.

The downside is that it would allow others to build innards (and outards, i guess) to fit into the Apple ecosystem. If people keep buying Apple and the margins are still good, then maybe that’s not a problem.

Thanks for provoking thoughts!

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