‘Ultrabook’ makers squeezed by Apple’s control of unibody metal chassis supply

“Long known as a master of the supply chain for overseas components, Apple has reportedly out-muscled the competition for yet another crucial element of its products: unibody metal notebook chassis,” Katie Marsal reports for AppleInsider.

“Intel and its partner PC makers have been “aggressively searching” for new materials to build chassis for the chipmaker’s thin-and-light ‘Ultrabook’` design,” Marsal reports. “According to DigiTimes, companies have been forced to seek alternatives because Apple already controls most of the ‘significantly limited’ capacity.”

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Marsal reports, “The most popular choice for Ultrabook designs is said to be magnesium-aluminum chassis, ideal for creating a notebook less than 0.8-inch thick. But a unibody magnesium-aluminum chassis requires expensive ‘CNC lathes,’ of which capacity is constrained… [due to supplying] unibody shells for notebooks to Apple.”

Read more in the full article here.

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  1. Actually this article is incomplete .
    It completely forgot about AMD chips especially the Llano chipset.
    AMD sold 5 million in last quarter and expect to ship 10 million units for ultraportable.
    AMD trounces intel I3 and is far more stable compared to the latest intel
    Sandy bridge.
    Intel chips are expensive while AMD is cheap . Thus lower cost for the consumer .

  2. It’s not just that capacity of the lathes is constrained, it’s that the lathes were installed to produce unibody parts for Apple in the first place; and Apple will always have first dibs on them. Any other company that wants lots of unibody parts can wait till Apple’s contract manufacturers put in some spare capacity, or fund them to install some – and they’ll need balls of steel to do that because that’s going to take committing to significant production runs over an extensive period. Are PC companies really in a position to do that? That’s the unibody conundrum for you folks.

    1. Foxconn bought 1000 Japanese CNC machine tools to make the unibodies. I’m sure Apple used part of their cash horde to make the purchase, as it’s not insignificant. It may be the largest field of CNC machines in one location, doing one thing. Of course, Apple would have dibs on any production from those machines as they were specifically purchased to meet Apple’s unibody demand.

      Nobody controls CNC machines. PC mfrs could buy their own if they’d like to make their own unibodies.

      1. Sure! They could …but would they? Would it make economic sense to buy their own machines? I think it would be worth doing so only if there were and assurance of selling large enough quantities at significant enough margins to justify such a layout on state-of-the-art Laser CNC milling machines. That is the unibody conundrum.

  3. And when Apple switches to Carbon Fiber, (Oh yeah, remember when Apple hired the carbon fiber genus? ((April 11, 2011)) suddenly all the competitors are going to be scrambling for Carbon Fiber manufacturing.
    Fiberglass is a dumb and cheap alternative.

    1. Another article I saw also incorrectly had “CNC lathes”. Most of these bloggers have never spent much time in a machine shop so you have to understand their ignorance. There are such things as CNC lathes with multiple tool stations but they’re basically used for cylindrical parts. All of Apple’s unibody cases use CNC milling machines that can basically mill out any shape even circular shapes in solid billet or castings if you’ve got the proper tool attachments. Those are some sweet machines. I was using them about 25 years ago when they used punched rolls to control the steps. I guess they’re all computer driven by now with software like AutoCad to whatever software does the conversion to CNC.

      One thing I realized when Apple first started with unibody construction, I figured that Apple was going to start using processes that were going to drive up the cost of machinery for the entire PC industry. No more of that cheaper die-cast plastic shit. Using CNC machining, Apple can really tweak its designs in an instant with finer precision without needing to change molds. Apple turned the PC manufacturing industry into something closer to aerospace industry. Once you can foot the basic cost of the machines, all that follows is a piece of cake.

      Yeah, Lord help the rest of the PC industry if Apple starts using carbon fiber designs at reasonable cost points.

      1. “… used punched rolls to control the steps.”
        40 years ago, I remember when we actually had to use a milling machine using ‘hands’ and be able to read ‘prints’, ‘dials’, ‘verniers’ and ‘calipers’. : |)=

  4. Surprised nobody thought to mention to Digitimes that it’s not a matter of supply constraints. Apple has two unibody patents which cover the internal design layout allowing efficient component layout without the need for extra(and heavy) support structures. The unibody case is just that – a case. Apple’s designs allow extra strength without weight penalties which is something others can not just copy. Unless they come up with their own ‘unified’ design concept – very difficult, they will end up being 10 – 15% heavier, with less inherent strength which negates the point of using a unibody shell.
    The patents cover component layout, cross-sectional design ie very very thin, battery placement and design and structural layering of internals. They also cover more than just milled aluminium enclosures.
    Hence Intel’s reference design which manufacturers are having trouble incorporating at the same price as Apple’s offerings.

    1. I thought I remembered that Apple had something to do with the design of the case, in which case (pun intended), the competition is so up-a-creek. Bet they never saw that one coming; probably laughed at Apple when they made a big deal about the unibody design.

      1. They have not, to date, seen anything Apple has been creating with any type of understanding They just keep slamming there faces into the door that Apple just kicked down with category defining products. One day they will move out of the way and open up a toy store. Far less likely to get hurt by Apple.

  5. Apple’s unibody chassis are not made on CNC lathes, they’re made on CNC mills. A lathe rotates the workpiece against a cutting tool. A mill rotates the cutting tool against the workpiece.


  6. I remember when Apple showed cased the design and I watched the video ….. If my memory serves me right the Street gave a big sigh to the idea, like ya so what big deal, and the stock sold off for a week or two after the announcement …..

    Still think Mr. Dell Mr. Jobs should shut down the company ….. Bet ya think for but for other reasons ……

    Good Day,

  7. Apple bought those assembly lines and the CNC Mills with a huge upfront contract buy. No PC company has stepped up to the plate with such a big buy, so they’re not getting cost efficiencies or capacity, unlike Apple who knew they had a hit with the macbook air.

    I’m not sure if Carbon Fiber is as good as a heat sink… that’s pretty important in the ultra book form factor.

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