World’s Most Advanced Machinery Was Reason For Apple’s Liquidmetal Deal, Expert Says

World’s Most Advanced Machinery Was Reason For Apple’s Liquidmetal Deal, Expert Says

Buhler's prototype Liquidmetal casting machine is called the most advanced in the world. This is a similar die-casting machine made by the same company.

Apple’s recent deal with Liquidmetal Technologies will give it access to the most advanced manufacturing machinery on the planet, one insider says.

Apple will soon start experimenting with a new prototype injection molding machine, says Drew Merkel, who is perhaps the most knowledgeable third-party expert on Liquidmetal Technologies. It may allow Apple to make advanced iPhone antennas and seamless gadget cases with holographic logos cast right into the metal.

“This is the most advanced injection-molding machine ever made,” Merkel says. “It is state-of-the-art.”

Apple recently licensed Liquidmetal Technology’s IP for use in consumer electronics. Liquidmetal Technologies is one of the leading companies trying to commercialize space-age metal alloys that are extremely hard and lightweight but can be processed as easily as plastics. NASA has said Liquidmetal is “poised to redefine materials science as we know it in the 21st century.”

World’s Most Advanced Machinery Was Reason For Apple’s Liquidmetal Deal, Expert Says

This aerospace part is a one-piece casting from Liquidmetal, which if made traditionally would have required several manufacturing steps. Image courtesy of Drew Merkel.

Liquidmetal’s prototype machine was made by BulhlerPrince of Holland, Michigan, a division of Switzerland’s Bulher Group. It was designed with the help of Dr. Bill Johnson of Caltech, the co-inventor of Liquidmetal and one of the co-founders of the company. Dr. Johnson didn’t respond to several requests for comment.

There is only one prototype, Merkel says, although he predicted Apple will order more. It is currently located in a factory in Korea.

The part in the picture above is a good example of the machine’s capabilities. Made for the aerospace industry, if it had been manufactured traditionally, it would have undergone several rounds of cutting, milling, drilling, threading, deburring, routing and sandblasting, Merkel said.

Instead, the part was cast in one operation and requires no further processing.

“The cost savings are tremendous,” Merkel said. “This is truly a fantastic representation of the complex design which can be fabricated and ready to go in minutes.”

In addition, there are the capabilities of Liquidmetal itself. The alloys, also known as bulk metallic glasses, are as strong as titanium but use only one-third of the material. It can be mixed with very small amounts of precious metals to make jewelry-like finishes, or optimized for functions such as an antenna. And while titanium scratches and magnesium corrodes, Liquidmetal is scratch and corrosion proof, and resistant to greasy marks.

“You get fingerprints all over them and they just disappear,” Merkel says. “You could add gold or silver to get a beautiful look you’ve never seen before.”

Merkel, who lives in Diamond Bar, Calif., near Los Angeles, is a major investor in Liquidmetal Technologies. A former executive from the steel and plastics industries, Merkel is perhaps the most knowledgeable expert on the company. Merkel invested about $1 million in Liquidmetal — his entire net worth — and watched in horror as the stock price plunged and his investment dwindled to about $55,000. He was so concerned about the company, he drove to its headquarters every month for years, just to check the lights were still on.

“I wanted to make sure they were paying their bills,” he says.

Merkel also kept the detailed and voluminous Liquidmetal Advocate blog, documenting the company’s ups and downs. “I read everything and I talked to every employee and investor and analyst out there.”

The company’s future looks much brighter after signing the licensing deal with Apple, which is reportedly worth at least $11 million and ongoing licensing fees. Merkel hopes the company’s stock will rise from its current $0.55 to $50.

In addition to the prototype injection molding machine, Liquidmetal already has 24 die casting machines, also manufactured by Buhler.

The 24 die-casting machines, however, aren’t as precise as the injection molding machine, nor as efficient.

These machines are manually operated. Each requires its own operator. Merkel says the machines are “incredibly inefficient” and the reject rates are high. (Apple nonetheless used the machines to make the only Liquidmetal part it has sourced in a shipping product: the SIM card ejection tool that comes with iPhones and maybe iPads)

The prototype injection molding machine, on the other hand, is a CNC machine and largely automated. One operator can control two machines, which are five times more efficient, Merkel says. It is also much more consistent, producing few reject parts.

It relies on a very precise cooling mechanism. The molten alloy must cool uniformly or will become brittle.

The machine is big enough to make four or five devices the size of an iPad, or a frame for large-screen TV that would be only one-eight an inch thick — but still be rigid and strong.

“In electronics, thinner is always better, and these won’t bend or crack,” Merkel says.

And because Liquidmetal parts don’t need to be machined or polished, they provide savings in manufacturing time and costs. Several steps are reduced to one.

According to Merkel, Liquidmetal has been making prototypes for Apple at least a couple of years, including gadget cases and chassis, and parts like bezels for screens.

“They have been working with Apple for a long time,” says Merkel. “They were making prototypes, trying to land a big fish.”

This was the company’s business model: make free prototypes for prospective customers to win their business. The company made golf clubs which had to be withdrawn because they shattered. An early formulation of the alloy became brittle after use.

“They spent $50 million on gold clubs that weren’t ready to go to market,” he says. “They were making everything and anything for anybody. They were giving it away.”

But with Apple, it worked. Merkel expects Apple to invest in new machinery and factories. He thinks Jonathan Ive, Apple’s head designer, who has a reputation for pioneering new materials and manufacturing techniques, is driving the Liquidmetal deal.

“Jonny Ive is probably the number one mover in the Liquidmetal concept,” he says. “Apple must believe in the technology because the company has been flaky for years. They kept refinancing and refinancing and sometimes couldn’t make payroll. The company has been broke for years. This shows how dramatic a deal this is, that Apple would invest in a company that’s quite flaky.”

Neither Apple nor Liquidmetal responded to requests for comment.

World’s Most Advanced Machinery Was Reason For Apple’s Liquidmetal Deal, Expert Says

A Buhler cold-chamber die casting machine, similar to Liquidmetal's machines that Apple now has access to.

About the author

Leander KahneyLeander Kahney is the editor and publisher of Cult of Mac. He is the NYT bestselling author of Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple's Greatest Products; Inside Steve’s Brain; Cult of Mac; and Cult of iPod. Leander has written for Wired, MacWeek, Scientific American, and The Guardian in London. Follow Leander on Twitter @lkahney and Facebook.

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