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back to article Apple boots MacBook Air wannabes out of slim case fabs

MacBook Air competitors may have to be made out of plastic, rather than aluminium, because Apple has first dibs on the factories that make the light metal cases. The success of super slim MacBook Air has kickstarted a trend for svelte laptops called ultrabooks. But although the Air's tough and light unibody aluminium casing is …

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Trollface

If you can't sue them

Buy all the parts so no one can else can make something. \Obviously not intentional, or at least just yet, but wouldn't be surprised if Apple go out and but every HD on the market.

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If only other manufacterers had thought of it first

Then they wouldn't have to queue up behind Apple.

Innovation? What's that?

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Silver badge

Innovation is what other people do. Laptops have been getting slimmer since they were invented. Marketing is what apple do, so people think slim laptop = Apple.

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Coffee/keyboard

WARNING: RDF DETECTED

*Please* tell me that you are not claiming that Apple invented the machined aluminium chassis?

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Anonymous Coward

No, nobody is claiming that, however, Apple were first to use the 'unibody' manufacturing process in laptop computers.

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Anonymous Coward

@WARNING: RDF DETECTED

Name at least 5 other computer manufacturers that use the same, or similar manufacturing process. The OP wasn't suggesting that Apple 'invented' the process, merely that they are amongst the first to use it for mass production of laptops, which would be innovative. If you don't know the difference between invention and innovation then blame your poor education and poor comprehension of English.

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Anonymous Coward

Point taken

But I suspect the main reason that other laptop manufacturers didn't go this way earlier is that only Apple could initially get away with passing the increased manufacturing costs onto their customers.

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BMW, GMC, Ford, Mercedes, Toyota, ... oh, that's five.

Or at least their suppliers. My father worked for an engine company and they were doing this (or something dang close to it) in the early 80s.

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@AC Re:@WARNING: RDF DETECTED

Do you mean actual manufacturers like Foxconn and Quanta or design and marketing firms like Apple?

Oh, being "amongst the first" is just being an early adopter, not innovative.

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Stop

@Craigness

So, I'm curious, in the time you have spent using or owning a Macbook Air, which bits of it's unique features do you think Apple 'didn't innovate'?

Which manufacturers mass produced aluminium unibody laptop did Apple copy the design and production methods from?

So much harder when you have to back up wild opinions with fact, isn't it?

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Anonymous Coward

@Armando 123

Comprehension not your strong point or do "BMW, GMC, Ford, Mercedes, Toyota" make computers? Fucking numpty.

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Anonymous Coward

@Eddy Ito; being amongst the first would make it an '*innovation* in the field of laptop computer manufacture. Since Apple developed the manufacturing process for their computers and sub-contract Foxconn and Quanta to handle the mass-production of these devices, the kudos is Apple's. The marketing firm jibe? Schoolyard trolling. Hate all you like, Apple *deserve* the plaudits on this.

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Anonymous Coward

@ AC 11:20

What makes a laptop different from any other manufactured product?

The work that Apple did to develop the tooling and production process for their 'Unibody' cases is *exactly* the same as the work thousands of manufacturing engineers do every day for other companies. And yes, those other companies include BMW, GMC, Ford, Mercedes, and Toyota.

Why should Apple be singled out for praise?

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@Strike

Of course not, but they were the first to adopt it to create the thinnest notebooks around.

Innovation doesn't end at invention, it's application too - and yes, that does include marketing as well as science and manufacture.

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@AC 11:20

Having known several past and current Apple employees as well as having interviewed at Apple it is pretty clear that they are a design house and not an engineering house. In my interview for an engineering position it was all about design and making it look pretty with no engineering in sight. I didn't bother with the second interview because it was clear they really wanted draftsmen to draw pictures under the supervision of their resident guru. The past employees I know pretty much say the same thing in that there is little freedom in each fiefdom and much of the actual mechanical engineering is farmed out to engineering firms with a mandate to "make it look like this and transfer any and all IP to us."

Sure, Apple makes one-offs and I wouldn't be surprised to find out the "unibody" was a direct result of that since machining it from billet is a common way to make a one off but it's a piss poor way to mass produce anything. It works if you can keep your margin on moderate production but it will never scale and will never be very cost efficient since they start with something near a 10 pound block of aluminum and throw away 9 pounds of chips.

As for the marketing firm "jibe" it's only a jibe to you as so far Apple has been successful in generating a buzz over a product that really isn't any different from most of the competition and turns that buzz into a higher profit margin. That, my anonymous friend, is marketing pure and simple.

Finally, while I did sell about 25% of my Apple stock earlier this year, it was only to pay myself back for the initial investment plus ten percent. Now the remaining shares are effectively free, that hardly qualifies me as a hater. It does mean that I don't really have to worry about whether they soar or sink as I can sell it for 2 cents per share and it's still a profit but it's always nice if it can shave a few years from my target retirement date.

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Maybe

But by using cheaper plastics, the machines would need to be bigger, hence they wouldn't be 'ultrabooks' anymore...

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Silver badge

Something's rotten...

It turns out that "production stoppage" is due to a bad smell - http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2011/10/factory-stench-shipment-delays/

[I had hoped it was a strike by said "cheap workers". :( ]

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Silver badge

Carbon fibre?

The casing of my (aging) VAIO SZ series machine is made of carbon fibre, and has withstood severe bashing around for years. Not perhaps as elegant as Apple, but if you want a tough, lightweight case, carbon fibre takes a lot of beating.

The MacBooks do look good in their simple cases, but I chose my machine mainly on combined merits of compute power, gpu power, and light weight. As we had just got extra funding price was not an issue. Looks did not come into it.

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Anonymous Coward

Aesthetics are a side effect. Aluminium is used for engineering reasons. CF/CFPs are an alternative, but have similar cost and engineering issues. They are't as recyclable/reusable as aluminium either. Both seem to be the right choice for 'ultrabooks' as they offer strength/rigidity without too much of a weight overhead.

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Aesthetics were the primary goal.

Apple first started to use metal enclosures in order to reduce case thickness - there was no other goal for the 2001 PowerBook G4's casing other than to be thin. The original Titanium casework was very thin, but it proved too expensive to machine, scratched easily, and (because it was nickel plated) gave a small number of customers a nasty rash. Aluminium models were thicker, and the unibody models were an answer to that. Shame they put shiny steel screws into them - mine would always work loose (steel and aluminium have badly-matched thermal expansion coefficients).

Unibodies don't have to be aluminium, though. Nokia's N9 and Lumia 800 mobile phones use a polycarbonate unibody enclosure that gives the same solidity and surface finish as anodised alumnium with quite a few advantages: dyed-through colouring, easier machining, RF-transparency and no irreparable dents from minor falls. Who's going to be the first Ultrabook maker to use a similar technique?

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Holmes

@AnotherNetNarcissist

yeah and that remenber me that aluminium is a major threat for environment when produced (aluminium does not exist in nature, so must be entirely made from other stuffs).

Probably green Apple forgot to tell you that.

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Um...

Unlike the carbon fibre use by non-Apple companies of course!

Do you see what I did there?

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Pirate

You're

obviously clueless. At least show some respect to reader and refrain from spitting your ignorance publicly.

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3D printing?

I wonder if it would make sense to do 3D printing of aluminium: Sprinkle a thin layer of fine aluminium dust and melt the places that need to be joined, repeat. Then shake off excess dust and polish.

The melting point of aluminium is 660 degrees celcius, which is lower than most forms of glass, so it should not be considerably harder than 3D printing glass, which is done. A problem might be thermal conductivity (which may melt the surrounding aluminium dust), but if the heat is localised enough, it should be doable. It might be necessary to do several sweeps over the surface so neighbouring "dots" are not melted immediately after each other.

A aluminium 3D printer can easily be adjusted to make different case shapes. It might be slower than milling (though this may still take hours if the article is to be believed), but the increased flexibility might outweigh the disadvantages. I can also imagine a 3D printer being cheaper than a robot milling machine.

Another advantage of 3D printing is that you might use multiple materials: You can, for example, make sections of glass interspersed with aluminium (given their similar melting points). You would need a glass that bonds well to aluminium and which has similar thermal expansion properties, but such exist. The main problem with this is that the excess dust would have to be sorted if it is to be reused. Note that glass sintered from dust as described above will not be clear, though it may be translucent.

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In my experience with plastics those 3D printed forms become porous. With hydrophilic materials like Al or glass they will take absorb water into the structure. Spill a Coke on it and see for yourself. Porous Al will probably not be very resistant against corrosion either. And if you varnish it to close the pores, sooner or later the varnish will peel off.

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@Mermaid Dick

The trick with porous structures like those in selective laser sintered metals is to use the porosity to your advantage when it comes time to seal it. Instead of covering the pores with varnish, I've had good luck using a vacuum technique to draw in an epoxy so it is then on the inside and can't peel off. I've also had reasonable results from plating the material as well.

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Anonymous Coward

Eastern Europe

Why not in Eastern Europe - they're now making TVs... labour costs are low...

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Good

Smelting down aluminium is a waste of energy and excuse to jack up the price. Perhaps some people love fondling their aluminium case. Personally I'd prefer to be fondling the £100 markup I'd saved from buying something made from plastic. Otherwise it makes no difference at all to the performance of the device.

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Headmaster

'Machined' or 'milled', not cast

The cases are machined, which is why they are slow and expensive to make. 'Casting' refers to pouring or injecting a liquid substance into a mould which will then solidify.

Machining allows features that can't be moulded, such as undercuts and very sharp radii. There is also a relationship to the grain structure of the material.

CNC machining is usually used for short production runs or prototypes, since it is too time consuming for many mass production parts when alternatives are available. Extruded parts, such as the case of the orginal iPod Nano and Mac Mini are far cheaper to make, but limited to a constant cross-section.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: 'Machined' or 'milled', not cast

But you can of course cast the rough shape of the chassis, then use machining to do the finishing. Saves a lot of machining time and tool wear if you don't have to mill out large openings from a solid block of material.

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And they probably do cast a rough shape

I assume the blanks are slightly bigger in every dimension and then some computer mills it down to size. It's still just an excuse for laptop makers to slap an exorbitant markup on a computer compared to one enclosed in plastic or some other material.

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Anonymous Coward

The blanks are extruded; casting allows too many imperfections to get into the blanks and is far less time and cost effective. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t0fe800C2CU

"It's still just an excuse for laptop makers to slap an exorbitant markup on a computer compared to one enclosed in plastic or some other material." There are engineering reasons to use materials like Aluminium and CFP that outweigh cost benefits. Strength, rigidity and heat dissipation are the immediately obvious ones.

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And there are reasons not to use it

Cracks, expense, weight, lack of hatches & ports for expansion, greater risk of electric shock, dirt and scratches are more visible.

At the end of a day I've never thought of any tablet, phone or laptop made from a plastic shell with appropriate reinforcement that it isn't fit for purpose. It might creak a bit if stressed but that nothing to care about.

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Bronze badge

and also cast

often parts are cast first to get the approximate shape first then machined to finish.

milling shapes from solid billets is generally more for critical applications where strength is important - aircraft parts not laptop cases.

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Headmaster

Is there a particular reason that ultrabooks have to have a unibody chassis?

Seems to me an easy way around the issue is not to bother with them, unless there's some compelling reason (beyond "Well, that's what apple do") to use 'em.

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Anonymous Coward

"Is there a particular reason that ultrabooks have to have a unibody chassis?"

Weight and strength; hence the desire to use aluminium. The other option is possibly CFPs, but they bring other manufacturing/engineering problems and costs.

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Boffin

The main reason

is that unibody prevent user to open the case and easily upgrade the computer, thus making a large portion of the customers upgrading buy buying an entire new machine.

So unibody = cash flow.

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I suppose I should've really been asking two questions:

1. Is a unibody chassis a core non-optional requirement for an ultrabook? (eg is it part of the Intel spec)

2. Is aluminium the only option for a unibody chassis?

It seems the answer to 1 is "no but it's highly desirable as it helps justify the higher, more profitable price tag" and 2 is "also no, but the alternatives aren't necessarily any better".

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Anonymous Coward

"It seems the answer to 1 is "no but it's highly desirable as it helps justify the higher, more profitable price tag" Yes and no. There are genuine engineering reasons. Due to the smaller size and requirement for lightness, a unibody 'chassis' is preferable because it allows for structural rigidity while not compromising weight; think 'monocoque'. Aluminium is light, strong and rigid, it also has a side benefit of being nice to look and touch, and is easily* recycled, meaning waste from the manufacturing process can be reprocessed and used to make more of the product. CFPs are another alternative, although they do have issues. The manufacturing process from raw materials is 'dirtier' than that of [Al] and it doesn't like to much direct sunlight. It cannot easily be reprocessed and what can be processed isn't nearly as strong as the original material. The normal high impact polymers used in laptop manufacturing won't cut the mustard when it comes to durability and strength vs. weight. They look shit too.

*all things are relative.

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Devil

Apples with Apples...

To quote the final sentence: "Manufacturers and Intel are also well aware that driving down prices could give them an edge over Apple..."

But I have to ask if driving down prices would also include an alternative LINUX based OS to give the competing products some form of individuality too?

If not, these products are just going to be nothing more than "another Windows Ultrabook" and that doesn't really come across as anything special..

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Who would use it though

How many users are going to want a Linux laptop? Outside of these elReg four walls?

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Already been there with netbooks

Nearly all of the first generation netbooks from Acer and Asus and others shipped with Linux. In part because XP had been end of lifed and Vista wasn't fit for purpose. However the user experience wasn't great for a variety of reasons even for those of us who knew what we were doing.

I had an Asus EeeBook 701 and the default customized Linux was a abysmal and trying to get the bugger to work with something more generic like Ubuntu was like crawling through glass.

I do think laptops with Linux would be nice. It would have to be Fedora or Ubuntu and it would have to work perfectly - graphics, audio, wifi, trackpad, everything. And it would have to be cheaper than the equivalent running Windows otherwise nobody will see the point in using it.

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Who'd want Linux?

Well, both my parents (who aren't computer people by any means) would. And if pressed, I could probably name another 3 or 4 non-nerd people I personally know who would prefer a Linux laptop.

The reason netbooks with Linux were a problem was because they were also extremely cheap - at half the price, every idiot and his dog bought them. The original ones would have been complained about by the complainers regardless of OS since the specs were extremely low to keep the price low.

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Couldn't agree more

I have a ThinkPad running Linux Mint and it's just brilliant. I really, really resented having to pay the Microsoft tax, though.

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Slim sales tickled with a feather?

Considering so few are buying the bloat priced ultrabooks I find this hard to believe.

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Why in China?

If the things are all made in machines then the cheapest source is that closes to the point of distribution. So, basically, I don't believe the assertion that all these factories are in China.

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Anonymous Coward

Aesthetics are not the only fruit

of using aluminium.

Aluminium casing also works well (as opposed to carbon fibre I suspect) for a heatsink.

Don't worry, I have my coat already...

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Another article in the series "Resistance to Apple is Futile"

just give up, guys, you can all produce socks for iPods, you know, or we may allow you to supply us with CPUs, until we boot your backside and make it ourselves.

After all, we are the cute and stylish underdog, and the media loves to cuddle (to) us, promote us and propagate our products, dissing any competition, however feeble. and if they dont get the message, we will sue them for making rectangular products and the compliant media will rejoice every time we get a temporary injuction.

Competion to Apple is futile!

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Macbook Air 11" is shyte

I bought one and I deeply regret it. No 'Delete' key. No '#' key. Instead, multiple finger combos that are a PITA when you're on a train with a cup of coffee in one hand. That an £1300 for a hardward spec that I could get at DELL for £600. That makes it £700 for the 'design'. Yes, I got sucked in by Apple's marketing machine, but once bitten; twice shy. It will take a lot for me to ever be interested again in an Apple device.

As for aluminium: big deal. I've seen and fondled Samsung's 900 series with its lighter, stronger, Duralumin and, you know what, it's actually BETTER than aluminium. So, IMHO, this article is not 'news'.

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