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Ultrabook makers turn to plastic as Apple controls unibody aluminum supply

post #1 of 94
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Apple's continued control unibody aluminum chassis supply has reportedly forced Ultrabook makers, hoping to compete with the MacBook Air, to turn to alternative materials such as plastic.

Industry sources indicated to DigiTimes on Monday that PC makers face limited capacity of unibody chassis, because computer numerical control, or CNC, machines can only produce one unibody frame every three hours. That means just one machine can only produce eight pieces per day.

Catcher Technology, the largest unibody chassis maker, is said to be restricted due to a production stoppage in China. But Catcher is still giving priority supply to Apple, which means other PC makers are feeling the squeeze.

PC makers are attempting to combat Apple's MacBook Air with the new Ultrabook specification spearheaded by Intel. The goal is to create affordable thin-and-light notebooks that can undercut the MacBook Air on price.

But in attempting to mimic the design of the MacBook Air, Ultrabook makers have had trouble securing unibody aluminum chassis, and have instead chosen to adopt new materials like high-density fiberglass, or an exterior aluminum chassis with plastic internal parts.

"The new aluminum chassis with plastic internal parts design will allow ultrabooks to feature a metal appearance, but all the internal parts will be made from plastic stuck to metal parts using glue," the report said.

The new design will not only allow Ultrabook makers to increase their output, but is also a cost-saving measure. While a unibody chassis costs between $40 and $80, the new aluminum design with plastic internals is said to cost between $20 and $30.



Apple's ultraportable MacBook Air has become an important part of the company's Mac lineup, and now represents 28 percent of its total notebook shipments. That's well up from just 8 percent of total MacBook sales in the first half of 2011.

Apple's success has prompted PC makers to fight back with their own thin-and-light notebooks, though the Ultrabook line has yet to see significant success. Earlier this month it was revealed that Acer and Asus slashed their Ultrabook orders by 40 percent after initial sales were slower than expected.

Back in August, before Ultrabooks even hit the market, it was first indicated that PC makers were feeling the squeeze from Apple on metal unibody chassis supply. It was said then that Intel and its PC partners were "aggressively searching" for new materials to build chassis for Ultrabooks. Monday's latest update would indicate that the companies believe they found their potential solutions in high-density fiberglass and plastic.
post #2 of 94
I love it.
post #3 of 94
What other materials can they turn to except plastic? Sucks for these companies jumping on board so late. That's what they get when they wait too long to compete. Same thing happened with iPad, all alternatives are cheap plastic.
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post #4 of 94
There is no way it takes 3 hours in machine time to make a unibody frame. With anodizing and other finishing work, maybe it'll take 3 hours total. But machine time? 30 minutes tops. And that would be slow by todays standards.

But yes, Apple obviously controls supply, and that's affecting these other guys. Frankly I'm glad. My sides were hurting from all the laughing at Acer et. al's attempts to clone the MBA.
post #5 of 94
If these other guys want unibody construction, then they can step up to the plate like certain other companies we all know and partner with the manufacturers to purchase more CNC machines. There is no reason a manufacturer should (or could) allocate capacity that was paid for and locked in by Apple in order to produce a competitor's products.

If they want to play ball, they need to bring their baseball bat and glove to the park.
post #6 of 94
I thought I'd read somewhere that Apple had helped to purchase the equipment that does the machining and that there were thousands of machines at a couple hundred thousand dollars per machine.
post #7 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by AppleInsider View Post

Apple's continued control unibody aluminum chassis supply...

Perhaps I'm being pedantic, Katie, but wouldn't the control be of the CNC machines, not of the aluminium nor the oddly worded "chassis supply"?
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post #8 of 94

"The new aluminum chassis with plastic internal parts design will allow ultrabooks to feature a metal appearance, but all the internal parts will be made from plastic stuck to metal parts using glue," the report said."

What the heck are they describing - is this a stamped shell?

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post #9 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by solipsism View Post

Perhaps I'm being pedantic, Katie, but wouldn't the control be of the CNC machines, not of the aluminium nor the oddly worded "chassis supply"?

It's not being pedantic - the article makes Apple sound anti-competetive. The truth is that Apple paid for the manufacturing capacity they are consuming. If other companies want to step up to do likewise, they are free to do so.
post #10 of 94
This has been reported before, loving it, i guess pc makes are trying to make apple look bad for buying all the production time up.. but I always thought it was good business to take care of the guy paying the bills over the long run and the one with the most orders gets the job.

I guess if pc makers want to steal Apples Idea for unibody aluminum chassis they need to belly up and place an order for 50% more then apple and be willing to pay more for it to boot.. if not shut up.

Apple takes care of there suppliers with lots of work, until they are crossed, so beware if they take an order over apple and they decide to cut the contract early or completely, you may have to craw on your hands an knees back to apple
post #11 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by solipsism View Post

Perhaps I'm being pedantic, Katie, but wouldn't the control be of the CNC machines, not of the aluminium nor the oddly worded "chassis supply"?

It is possible that Apple does in fact control the machines, by owning most of them or at least funding their purchases. But if Apple is solely dependent upon suppliers who own their own machines, then they might very well control the "chassis supply" though contracts with manufacturers.

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post #12 of 94
Three hours do sound like too long, but than again it's unibody... if it were just many random pieces of aluminum to make many parts, it certainly would be faster, but making only a few detailed panes from one piece of metal is indeed hard and time consuming. E.g. look at the top panel of a MacBook - you need to not only cut it from aluminum, but make holes for every single key on the keyboard, for the trackpad, for speakers... the indention around the keyboard... holy shit there's a lot of work there...
post #13 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by tmallon View Post

This has been reported before, loving it, i guess pc makes are trying to make apple look bad for buying all the production time up.. but I always thought it was good business to take care of the guy paying the bills over the long run and the one with the most orders gets the job.

I guess if pc makers want to steal Apples Idea for unibody aluminum chassis they need to belly up and place an order for 50% more then apple and be willing to pay more for it to boot.. if not shut up.

Apple takes care of there suppliers with lots of work, until they are crossed, so beware if they take an order over apple and they decide to cut the contract early or completely, you may have to craw on your hands an knees back to apple

Apple purchased large numbers of CNC machines for their manufacturing partners. There is no reason a competitor should feel entitled to production time using that equipment.
post #14 of 94
They aren't late... they are just cheapskates... generic PC manufacturers grew too accustomed to making low-quality cheap shit from a generic commodity parts and now they are butthurt that to match Apple's design they would need to spend money and time...
post #15 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by tt92618 View Post

If these other guys want unibody construction, then they can step up to the plate like certain other companies we all know and partner with the manufacturers to purchase more CNC machines. There is no reason a manufacturer should (or could) allocate capacity that was paid for and locked in by Apple in order to produce a competitor's products.

If they want to play ball, they need to bring their baseball bat and glove to the park.

Perhaps Apple has also tied up the manufacturing capacity for the CNC machines themselves?

If, as reported, Apple is buying or funding the purchase of the tools, that could be the case.

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post #16 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by JONOROM View Post

"The new aluminum chassis with plastic internal parts design will allow ultrabooks to feature a metal appearance, but all the internal parts will be made from plastic stuck to metal parts using glue," the report said."

What the heck are they describing - is this a stamped shell?

That's my take. A stamped shell and then glue on a plastic substructure.

They're trying to compete with great engineering using plastic and glue. Reminds me of the US Car industry in the late '70s.
post #17 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by iVlad View Post

What other materials can they turn to except plastic?



(Although apparently Apple controls that technology as well.)
post #18 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by JONOROM View Post

Perhaps Apple has also tied up the manufacturing capacity for the CNC machines themselves?

If, as reported, Apple is buying or funding the purchase of the tools, that could be the case.

You can get as many CNC machines as you want right now. The down economy has cause a lot of shops to shut down. There is actually a glut of CNC mills on the market right now....

I suspect that it is a problem of scale. Other companies simply do not want to spend the time and resources to "tool up" to make the aluminum housing right now.

I suspect that they (if they have any sense) are going to put their time and resources toward the next generation of composite (probably carbon fiber/kevlar) materials and manufacturing. Even Apple seems to realize that they have carried the Aluminum chassis about as far as they can with weight savings.

Who ever prefects the manufacturing of the composite chassis first will win the next "Mine is lighter and stronger" title...
post #19 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by JONOROM View Post

It is possible that Apple does in fact control the machines, by owning most of them or at least funding their purchases. But if Apple is solely dependent upon suppliers who own their own machines, then they might very well control the "chassis supply" though contracts with manufacturers.

But the chassis are a product of a specific design, not something any other company could use, so regardless of whether Apple owns the machines or leases their use it's still the CNC machines that are being tied up, not a product of the machine, hence "chassis supply" is incorrect.

An example of Apple hoarding the supply of a component would be NAND.
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post #20 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by primedetailer View Post

I thought I'd read somewhere that Apple had helped to purchase the equipment that does the machining and that there were thousands of machines at a couple hundred thousand dollars per machine.

My guess is that Apple owns the machines and leases them to the manufacturer. That way, if/when the Apple contract ends, the manufacturer cannot just start making similar parts for third parties.
post #21 of 94
If the this were the other way around Apple would use something else to build the case and convince us that is was better than unibody. Much like they did with the first iMacs. After all beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Personally I do like the aluminum cases but there is nothing wrong with plastic if it is done right. Unfortunately it is usually done to be cheap and ends up that way.
post #22 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by sranger View Post

You can get as many CNC machines as you want right now. The down economy has cause a lot of shops to shut down. There is actually a glut of CNC mills on the market right now....

I suspect that it is a problem of scale. Other companies simply do not want to spend the time and resources to "tool up" to make the aluminum housing right now.

I suspect that they (if they have any sense) are going to put their time and resources toward the next generation of composite (probably carbon fiber/kevlar) materials and manufacturing. Even Apple seems to realize that they have carried the Aluminum chassis about as far as they can with weight savings.

Who ever prefects the manufacturing of the composite chassis first will win the next "Mine is lighter and stronger" title...

These other companies make way too products for CNC milling to be as cost effective as Apple can make it. Intel tried to get the others on board for a basic design but the vendors still wanted a reduction in cost from Intel.

Even if they all got on board they either have to use the same design that makes them less appealing to the world of Windows notebooks on the market or make unique design changes that cost them more money. Apple is the only one in a good position and I don't see any other vendor finding a good niche to carve out for themselves for the long run.
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post #23 of 94
This is actually one of the things I like about Apple. They took the simplest concept and applied it at heart.

Work hard, earn money, Don't spend it all put some away because you may need it someday.

The PC boys(and almost all other types of companies for that matter) always seem to want to throw money at everything and never save any, which has to be the reason IMO for their supply crisis. The threw away every little chance, every dollar every penny. and now they are paying for their naive short term investments rather than long term commitments.
post #24 of 94
Doesn't Apple use the case itself as a heat sync? If the competition is using plastic, it sounds like they will have to make them larger and with noise producing fans. I'm constantly blown away with the common PC industry. Why won't they do anything creative?

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post #25 of 94
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Originally Posted by iVlad View Post

What other materials can they turn to except plastic? Sucks for these companies jumping on board so late. That's what they get when they wait too long to compete. Same thing happened with iPad, all alternatives are cheap plastic.

Other alternatives: die cast process using zinc, magnesium or some other metal. I think aluminum can be die cast as well.

Aluminum is not in short supply, I have not seen any supply constraints or disruptions in the past few years. I don't think machines are in short supply. It doesn't take an extremely specialized machine to do most of the work.

Quote:
Originally Posted by solipsism View Post

Perhaps I'm being pedantic, Katie, but wouldn't the control be of the CNC machines, not of the aluminium nor the oddly worded "chassis supply"?

Exactly. The headline is just plain incorrect.
post #26 of 94
Note to self: To make lots of dough, open a massive CNC shop.
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post #27 of 94
Building plastic computers is the only way "ultra book" makers can compete on price...
post #28 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by JoeBean View Post

There is no way it takes 3 hours in machine time to make a unibody frame. With anodizing and other finishing work, maybe it'll take 3 hours total. But machine time? 30 minutes tops. And that would be slow by todays standards.

But yes, Apple obviously controls supply, and that's affecting these other guys. Frankly I'm glad. My sides were hurting from all the laughing at Acer et. al's attempts to clone the MBA.

More like 10 minutes - I've done plenty of CNC milling.

Why do they even bother listening to Digitime? They're wrong 99% of the time. Not to mention that it doesn't make any sense. There are tens of thousands of shops that can to CNC milling of aluminum. I could find 30 shops within 15 miles of my house. There's no way Apple has the entire industry locked up.
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post #29 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by sranger View Post

You can get as many CNC machines as you want right now. The down economy has cause a lot of shops to shut down. There is actually a glut of CNC mills on the market right now....

I suspect that it is a problem of scale. Other companies simply do not want to spend the time and resources to "tool up" to make the aluminum housing right now.

I suspect that they (if they have any sense) are going to put their time and resources toward the next generation of composite (probably carbon fiber/kevlar) materials and manufacturing. Even Apple seems to realize that they have carried the Aluminum chassis about as far as they can with weight savings.

Who ever prefects the manufacturing of the composite chassis first will win the next "Mine is lighter and stronger" title...

Do you think the only advantages are weight and structural rigidity? This is a serious question. I have suspected for some time that the unibody aluminum frames were a key to superior thermal dissipation. As we all know, one of the major causes of component failure is thermal stress. Any thoughts, is anyone already familiar or has anyone investigated?
post #30 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by JeffDM View Post

Other alternatives: die cast process using zinc, magnesium or some other metal. I think aluminum can be die cast as well.

Casting generally doesn't yield the kinds of strength that a portable enclosure requires. Too prone to cracks.
post #31 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by sranger View Post

I suspect that they (if they have any sense) are going to put their time and resources toward the next generation of composite (probably carbon fiber/kevlar) materials and manufacturing. Even Apple seems to realize that they have carried the Aluminum chassis about as far as they can with weight savings.

Who ever prefects the manufacturing of the composite chassis first will win the next "Mine is lighter and stronger" title...

This is where competition is good. Most of the PC makers will flail and produce sub-standard designs, but one or two might 'think different' and come up with a better way to make enclosures.

The problem for them, though, is they don't have the resources and production/purchasing scale of Apple (Thanks, Tim Cook!) nor necessarily the fortitude to invest in the long term, as has been pointed out elsewhere in this thread. Also, it will be more difficult for anyone to have a breakthrough without everyone else hearing about it and adopting the same strategy. Apple's secrecy is hated by the 'open-everything' crowd as well as their competitors, but this is what it takes to stay ahead. The technology field is hardly a gentleman's sport.
post #32 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by Dlux View Post

Casting generally doesn't yield the kinds of strength that a portable enclosure requires. Too prone to cracks.

How did IBM & Lenovo do it for Thinkpad shells? For that matter, Compaq business notebooks? I've had several that were die cast shells. Before the Unibody, Apple used a lot of die cast parts inside their machines. I have a ten year old business notebook still in occasional use with a die cast shell that is not showing signs of such cracks. I have three other machines of similar construction that don't show the problem. It's a valid concern, but it seems to me to be a manageable problem.
post #33 of 94
The whole problem with this whole Ultrabook initiative is the simple fact that the 11" MacBook Air is currently Apple's lowest cost Mac notebook. Even if the PC makers can undercut Apple's price by $200 on a similarly spec'd computer, (20% of $999), a $800 ultrabook is an expensive PC when the average price is around $400 to $600. (This may be for desktops but I can't imagine notebooks are that far off)
post #34 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by tt92618 View Post

It's not being pedantic - the article makes Apple sound anti-competetive. The truth is that Apple paid for the manufacturing capacity they are consuming. If other companies want to step up to do likewise, they are free to do so.

Further, I believe Apple helped BUILD the manufacturing capacity for unibody enclosures... either buying outright the CNC farms, or committing to long-term contracts so the vendors could justify buying all those devices.

The point is that without Apple's commitment to unibody designs, those factories wouldn't exist in the first place. It's not like Apple consumed an existing resource all for themselves.

MadCow.
post #35 of 94
What's what you say? Supply constraints on aluminum manufacturing is forcing the competition to innovate instead of copy Apple? Oh wait, false alarm. No innovation is going on. Just keep doing whatever Apple is doing.

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post #36 of 94
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Originally Posted by Niko03 View Post

The whole problem with this whole Ultrabook initiative is the simple fact that the 11" MacBook Air is currently Apple's lowest cost Mac notebook. Even if the PC makers can undercut Apple's price by $200 on a similarly spec'd computer, (20% of $999), a $800 ultrabook is an expensive PC when the average price is around $400 to $600. (This may be for desktops but I can't imagine notebooks are that far off)

It may be expensive for typical consumer computers with all-plastic housings and screens with rubbish color quality. A lot of business notebooks are in Apple's price range, have better chassis and screens than their consumer counterparts. When comparing computers, compare on build quality too. My Dell Studio that I bought last year is a creaky turd with a screen that has a terrible viewing angle. Even my pre-unibody MacBook Pro is more rigid, and still feels and looks better. The performance doesn't even feel different on the Dell, despite 3+ years in technology difference.
post #37 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by jragosta View Post

More like 10 minutes - I've done plenty of CNC milling.

Why do they even bother listening to Digitime? They're wrong 99% of the time. Not to mention that it doesn't make any sense. There are tens of thousands of shops that can to CNC milling of aluminum. I could find 30 shops within 15 miles of my house. There's no way Apple has the entire industry locked up.

I've used local cnc shops. Great work but not to the tolerance I would think is needed for a portable computer. Plus the term cnc machines is very general. Are they using laser, water jet, end mills? A combination seems likely. There is no way that making a MBA body takes just 10 min. Those 30 shops near your house can't produce this kind of item currently. If they could they would.
post #38 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by jragosta View Post

More like 10 minutes - I've done plenty of CNC milling.

Why do they even bother listening to Digitime? They're wrong 99% of the time. Not to mention that it doesn't make any sense. There are tens of thousands of shops that can to CNC milling of aluminum. I could find 30 shops within 15 miles of my house. There's no way Apple has the entire industry locked up.

But are there thousands of shops in Taiwan or China? Also, you have to be willing to send your chief designer, the equivalent of Jony Ive, to shepherd the project through the shop(s), presumably over and over till they get it right. How long did he spend in China getting something like this underway? Was it three weeks or three months? I think the latter. Engineers from Asus or Acer spending weeks in the Motel 6 in Canoga Park or wherever? Hard to imagine.

I also can't imagine any company but Apple having the confidence to force a design this radical into being. You'd have to know you're going to sell millions, and there are no signs yet of such success for the PC ultrabook concept.

But Ive (and Bob Mansfield?) should get more credit for uniquely pulling this off. The machined aluminIum chassis solves heat, strength, weight and thickness problems so well, and looks so great besides, it is the single most obvious accomplishment you can point to if you want to see or show the Apple difference. Now we're beginning to see the effects of that obvious difference on a deep materials level.

Oh, and you're right, the machining time for each unit sounds totally bogus, not that I know anything about it. They must mean the total time spent handling and finishing.
post #39 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by MacBook Pro View Post

Do you think the only advantages are weight and structural rigidity? This is a serious question. I have suspected for some time that the unibody aluminum frames were a key to superior thermal dissipation. As we all know, one of the major causes of component failure is thermal stress. Any thoughts, is anyone already familiar or has anyone investigated?

Aluminum does conduct heat well. It does help to cool the units. When I designed and manufactured industrial computers I always used Steel and Aluminum materials (Especially aluminum Bezels). I would NEVER have used plastic because it is such a good insulator of heat.

However, I see no reason for heat dissipation to prevent someone from using composite based chassis. I suspect manufactures will embed heat sinks within the composite layers. Kind of like flexible circuit boards. These would be attached to solid state heat pumps ( Peltier effect cooler).

It is also possible to actually convert the heat back into electricity. It is not particularly efficient right now, but could recover up to 2-5% of the energy with current technology. I expect a breakthrough as people explore new composite battery (especially Carbon Nao Tubes) technologies (for automotive applications) that will make these heat to electricity devices more efficient. The ability to recover some of the heat and re-use the energy as electricity would have a significant effect on battery life while lowering the need for external cooling...

Keep in mind that Apple is also working on composite chassis. I am sure that they realize that they are the only way to make a lighter and stronger chassis. IMHO, I think Apple has pushed the Aluminum based chassis about as far as they can.
post #40 of 94
Quote:
Originally Posted by Dlux View Post



(Although apparently Apple controls that technology as well.)

As a dejected LQMT shareholder, I am still waiting for that one to pan out....... \
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