Steve Jobs’ list of achievements is long, and one of them is being the man who made aluminium sexy.
So enamoured with aluminium was Jobs that the Apple co-founder, who died of cancer in 2011, even had a super-yacht built out of it.
It was not just the look of the metal that Jobs fell in love with; its properties allowed him to create the products that have today become synonymous with smartphones and tablet computers.
Gone are the mobile phones the size and weight of a brick. In their place are slick, innovative, beautifully designed smartphones, such as the iPhone 5.
Banished too are the plastic or painted-metal laptops of the last decade. In their place are trendsetting, modern designs, like the brushed aluminium iPad and MacBook Air.
Forget battery-operated plastic walkmans that frequently cracked and destroyed the tapes they played; they’re obsolete, replaced by iPods in eight different colours of anodised aluminium that clip like a tie pin.
Jobs changed the face of consumer electronics and with it the consumer’s perception of aluminium.
Apple’s use of aluminium has not significantly increased demand for the metal, used elsewhere in aerospace, transportation and construction.
Actual consumption volumes in the consumer electronics sector are tiny, relatively speaking.
Jobs’ desire to use aluminium as the dominant material in Apple products, however, has made the metal instantly recognisable in a way that few, if any, other metals can claim.
“Aluminium was the ideal choice for the product, because it provides the thinness and lightness that we want in the portable category, [it has] a great strength-to-weight ratio and it also provides us with some really nice options from a finishing perspective,” Dan Ricchio, senior vp of hardware engineering at Apple, said.
“We’ve chosen both materials and processes that are the best in the industry from an environmental perspective,” Ricchio added.
Apple – which will not discuss its suppliers – has not always picked aluminium as its metal of choice, however.
“Initially the company used plastic, but as technology evolved and processes got smaller, Apple needed something less bulky for its products,” Kevin Green, Global Director, Electronics, Appliances, Industrial, and Power Business Units at US aluminium firm Novelis, said.
“It turned to aluminium and its use of brushed metal became synonymous with the Apple brand,” he added.
Apple didn’t pioneer the use of aluminium in consumer electronics. In the late 1990s, Motorola were the first original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to use aluminium with any real visibility, in their Razr phones.
In fact, Apple’s first attempts to create the look that dominates its portfolio of products today involved using painted titanium, which in many instances easily scratched and peeled.
Determined to get it right, Jobs drove the push to find a material that would give Apple products a more natural look, which – in his book – ruled out painted plastic or magnesium, as well as chrome-plated steels.
Aluminium was the winner and the rest is history.
The halo effect
Jobs and Apple arguably set the standard for product development for the rest of the information technology world, as well as the materials it uses.
One of the biggest differences between Apple and other consumer electronics manufacturers is that it selected aluminium as a strategic material in the early 2000s, and now takes it across the company’s four primary platforms – iPods, Macs, iPads and iPhones.
“Apple took the leadership position in consumer electronics and the halo effect has been felt throughout the industry. This is twofold – there’s a mechanical, internal component, and an industrial design factor, [related to] the look and feel of Apple’s products,” Novelis’ Green said.
“Apple products are built to exacting standards of fit and finish, so much so that they use the same machine vision systems in their manufacturing processes that are used to craft fine watches. Other consumer electronics companies are following suit,” Green added.
For sure, other manufacturers have recognised the appeal of Apple product design to consumers. But few have been able to match it, despite trying similar matt-finished anodised appearances for their products.
Other consumer electronics manufacturers that use aluminium do so mostly in niche applications, which they sell at a premium.
Yet the huge promise of the Apple brand presents the company with an enormous challenge to live up to.
Much has been made of the advances made by Samsung Electronics, which has increased competition with Apple in terms of high-end smartphone sales and now outsells its rival Nokia in the low-end phone market.
Samsung is already using a new technology developed by Alcoa called ColorKast, which produces colour-anodisable aluminium diecast components.
The South Korean firm used it on its new NX210 digital camera and other consumer electronics OEMs are preparing to apply ColorKast to their own products.
Apple’s score is off the charts when it comes to the level of perfection in its devices, something helped by the new Unibody design, as the company’s senior vp of industrial design Jonathan Ive has explained.
“The huge breakthrough that we had with the MacBook was to replace all of [the multiple] parts with just one part. That one part we call Unibody,” he said.
The only way to make this one part was to machine it from a single piece of aluminium.
“Machining gives us a level of precision that was completely unheard of in this industry. We have been so fanatical in the tolerances of how we machine and build the product,” Ive added.
This fanaticism is clearly working. The company reported record revenue of over $54 billion and sales of over 75 million iOS devices in the first quarter of fiscal 2013.
Apple’s drive to create simple, seamless design has put it head and shoulders above many of its competitors, although Samsung is intensifying the rivalry by adopting a larger screen, upgraded processor and new applications for its Galaxy S4 smartphone.
Jobs took the view that aluminium’s lightweight properties matched the need of the consumer to be mobile.
“Consumer demand for portability is driving the need for electronics manufacturers to create thinner, lighter-weight devices. As the consumer has gone from being in front of a desk to being much more mobile, there’s been a tremendous movement from desktops to notebooks and on to smartphones, and it’s all driven by the need for portability,” Alcoa’s Leighton Cooper, director of technology, Global Rolled Products, said.
To this end, the smartphone has become the desk.
“This mobility factor has driven the need to use lighter-weight materials with stiffness and durability, at a cost-effective price. As a result, you don’t see painted steel or stainless steel being used, because it is heavy compared with most other materials,” Cooper added.
Jobs was well aware of the changing consumer environment, describing Apple in 2010 as a “mobile devices company”, an expression reiterated by his successor Tim Cook.
Recycling and the environment
Jobs’ desire to maintain a green environmental footprint meant that aluminium – a 100% recyclable metal – had a headstart when it came to picking his materials of choice.
“Apple’s approach to recycling begins in the design stage, where we create compact, efficient products that require less material to produce. The materials we do use — including arsenic-free glass, high-grade aluminium and strong polycarbonate — are reclaimed by recyclers for use in new products,” the company’s website states.
The drive to recycling came as consumers became more concerned about where the materials in their products originated from.
“The consumer recognises that aluminium is a green material. They differentiate it from other materials. It’s an additional selling feature for aluminium in consumer electronics,” Alcoa’s Cooper said.
Apple operates or participates in recycling programs in 95% of the regions where its products are sold, which means any iPad, iPhone, Mac or PC – desktop or notebook – may qualify for reuse or free recycling.
The aluminium stand on the iMac is made using 30% recycled content, for instance.
“We’ve set ourselves a really ambitious plan to remove toxins from electronics, the boards, the flex cables, things like mercury in displays, arsenic in glass, brominated flame retardants and polyvinyl chloride from all of our internal cables. Even the packaging of our products has evolved since we focused on the environmental sensitivity of our products,” Bob Mansfield, senior vp of Technologies at Apple, said.
“We’ve removed plastics wherever possible, in favour of materials that are more highly recyclable, more durable, more efficient and longer lasting,” he added.