• 08.26.10

Apple Prepares for Next Great Leap Forward: Liquid Metal

The company is planning to start using a revolutionary new manufacturing technique.

Apple Prepares for Next Great Leap Forward: Liquid Metal

Everyone — ourselves included — coos and squeals about Apple’s design genius. But the real secret might be their astonishing manufacturing capabilities; the reason your iPhone 4 or MacBook Pro look so slick is that they’re made with cutting-edge manufacturing.


Apple’s about to get one step better, having just ordered “the most advanced manufacturing machine on the planet,” which uses something called Liquidmetal. (Yes, Liquidmetal. No T-1000 jokes allowed.) Though the machine is still a first prototype, Apple has already paid a reported $11 million to the Liquidmetal company to license its tech. Its engineers will soon start exploring its capabilities using their new toy.

The bottom line is that manufacturing tiny, complex parts made of metal becomes as simple as working with plastic. Here’s how. Consider the tiny little aircraft part above, which was made with Liquidmetal. Usually, to make something like that, you’d have to go through dozens of manufacturing steps — everything from drilling to cutting to threading. That would involve an entire room full of machines, each with separate operators.


[A machine similar to those that Apple will use]

Liquidmetal changes that process completely. Rather than going through all those steps, you can simply create a mold, and fill it with Liquidmetal (using that new, prototype machine specially built for the purpose). It cures inside the mold, and, after just a couple steps, the finished piece emerges. Bottom line: That saves time and cost, and your 2015 MacBook Nano can be extra extra super polished at an even lower price than ever before.

According to Cult of Mac, machines like those you see above can use Liquidmetal to make something as big as a frame for a big-screen TV while only having edges 1/8″ thick. It’s that strong.

And the prime mover in getting Liquidmetal in use at Apple? One of Liquidmetal’s backers suspects that it’s none other than Jonathan Ive himself: “[He] is probably the number one mover in the Liquidmetal concept.”

Ive, of course, has a famously intense dedication to keeping Apple at the fore of what modern manufacturing can do — and that’s one reason why competing designs often just don’t stack up.

Visit Cult of Mac for the amazing story of the technology’s tough rise to the big-time; and Core 77 for more detail about what makes the process cool.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.