Thursday, July 5, 2012

Apple’s Grip on Metal Chassis Supplies Leaves Ultrabook Makers Scrambling

Apple’s Grip on Metal Chassis Supplies Leaves Ultrabook Makers Scrambling:

The MacBook Pro with Retina Display features a super slim unibody chassis. Photo: Peter McCollough/Wired
Apple barely has to worry about weaponizing its patent for the design of the MacBook Air, as its grip over the supply chain is already putting the hurt on potential ultrabook competitors.
All current MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models employ a unibody aluminum chassis, an industrial design component that PC makers have started to emulate. The Air’s thin, light metal housing is particularly en vogue, and many PC manufacturers want the same type of chassis for their ultrabooks. But according to a recent report from DigiTimes, overseas suppliers can’t deliver these metal chassis quickly enough, which is bad news for Apple competitors.
Specifically, DigiTimes reports, Catcher Technology and Foxconn Technology, the primary makers of these notebook casings, won’t be able to completely fulfill ultrabook demand through the end of 2012.
“Apple has really consumed a considerable portion of the currently available [manufacturing] capacity because they use the casings exclusively in their notebooks,” IHS principal analyst Tom Dinges told Wired. “Not to mention, Apple’s notebook volumes have grown considerably faster than the overall market the past few years, which adds even more strain to the available capacity for these casings.”

Dinges explained that various notebook manufacturing suppliers in Taiwan have added their own CNC machines for fabricating these chassis to help meet demand from the larger manufacturers. These suppliers don’t exclusively serve Apple, but there are still shortages.
“The biggest issue is how quickly the suppliers can ramp additional capacity in the next few months ahead of the seasonal uptick we always see in August through October,” Dinges said.
Whether chassis shortages becomes a major problem is dependent on how quickly ultrabooks end up taking off in the notebook space. For now, ultrabook adoption is still on the slow side, although it’s picking up momentum, analysts say.
Nonetheless, ultrabook makers are proactively addressing the likelihood of supply shortages — and this will result in cost savings, industrial design changes, and ultrabooks that circumvent the supply shortage entirely. For example, ultrabook manufacturers may be turning to fiberglass instead of metal for their notebook casings. According to a second DigiTimes report, we could see fiberglass-reinforced plastics using “a breakthrough enabling IMR (in-mold roller) technology.” Cases made from fiberglass-reinforced plastics are generally thinner and more stiff than ones made out of traditional plastics.
Using fiberglass instead of aluminum can save notebook manufacturers as much as 80 percent on case costs. But will consumers bite, trading the panache of unibody aluminum for ho-hum fiberglass, cost-savings notwithstanding?
“The challenge, of course, with moving to a new material such as the fiberglass will be to convince the consumer that the material is strong enough, and give them the confidence the system will hold long-term given the mobile nature of these new ultra-thin systems,” IHS principal analyst Craig Stice told Wired via e-mail.
So what’s it going to be, ultrabook makers? Are you going to stick with metal unibody frames, and hope for a production increase? Or are you going to roll the dice on fiberglass chassis? You better decide soon — Windows 8 is arriving in the fall, and you’re going to need to ramp up production volumes stat.

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