Over the last several months Apple has been busy filing and receiving patents on a variety of innovations that employ carbon fibers, which will reduce the weight of its popular line of mobile devices, including the MacBook, iPad, iPhone and iPod. But now as the holiday gift buying season is starting in earnest, and unofficially starts this Friday – known as Black Friday, there is mounting speculation that Apple will release a new iPad 2 as early as April 2011. There are some wondering whether the iPad 2 might incorporate the carbon fiber reinforced plastic discussed in some Apple patents and pending patent applications. Such a change would take the iPad away from the aluminum frame currently used, which adds unwanted weight to the device.
On September 7, 2010, Apple was granted U.S. Patent No. 7,790,637, which relates to a composite laminate that has an improved cosmetic surface. Certainly this patent won’t grab too many headlines for its sexy gadget appeal, but it does relate to a plurality of sheets stacked one over the other with an exterior surface placed over the sheets to form a composite laminate that provides an outwardly consistent appearance. This provides one important clue that Apple is experimenting with carbon fiber reinforced plastic in an effort to reduce the weight of devices, but is concerned with still maintaining an appropriately aesthetically pleasing device.
The ‘637 patent explains that plastic housings for electronic equipment are known to exists, and that carbon fiber reinforced plastic is known to provide a very strong, lightweight material for forming housings for electronic equipment. Unfortunately, however, despite the benefits of carbon fiber composites, such composites are typically not used because they are “black and the carbon fibers are typically visible on the composite surface.” Furthermore, “carbon fiber composite can have cosmetic imperfections that reduce the aesthetic appearance of the molded article formed therefrom.” All of this tends to “provide a narrow range of surface appearance to the molded article and therefore may give a ‘tired’, unexciting look.” Thus, the innovation embodied in the ‘637 patent, which relates to a composite laminate having an improved cosmetic surface and a method of making the same provides a clue with respect to where Apple products might be heading.
Then last week, on November 18, 2010, an Apple patent application was published that provides further clues. U.S. Patent Application 20100289390 was published from an application originally filed on May 18, 2009. The title of the patent application is “Reinforced device housing,” and even a casual glance at the drawings suggest that this device housing contemplates application with devices such as the iPad, iPhone or iPod. In fact, the patent application later goes on to identify mobile phones and a tablet computing devices as those devices that are specifically contemplated as falling within the scope of this invention.
Of course, you cannot make too much out of the drawings because the drawings do not define the ultimate rights that will be granted, but they are provided to be illustrative and allow the drafter of the application to focus the reader on certain aspects that are critical and need to be discussed in order to adequately describe the invention pursuant to U.S. patent law requirements. Thus, the drawings are not limiting, but we can certainly see what they were thinking about as they drafted the patent application.
The Background of the patent application explains the problems with current portable device housings:
Many electronic devices, including portable devices, have housings made of plastic. Plastic enclosures tend to be relative inexpensive and simple to manufacture but may be brittle and crack under relatively low stress. Other electronic devices have metal housings. Metal casings are durable but may be heavier and/or more expensive to manufacture than an equivalently-sized plastic casing.
Some electronic devices use a reinforced plastic housing. For example, certain devices may have a housing formed from carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP). A standard CFRP may be made of multiple layers, each of which typically has carbon fibers aligned in a plastic matrix such that the fibers all extend in substantially the same direction within that layer. The carbon fibers impart structural strength and resistance to bending and breaking against force applied transversely to the length of the fibers. CFRP materials generally have a high strength to weight ratio and weight to stiffness ratio. However, CFRP may crack or break if bent or rolled such that the carbon fibers bend along their lengthwise axis. More commonly, the fibers in each layer of CFRP generally resist conforming to abrupt angles (such as those formed at a corner having right angles) assuming and/or maintaining shapes with compound curves, and bridging It is more accurate to say the fibers will resist conforming to sharp corners and shapes with compound curves, producing bridging between adjacent layers, voids, and other cosmetic and structural defects. Thus, CFRP may not be a material of choice for many applications, especially those having fairly sharp corners such as electronics housings.
It should be noted that the iPad employs an aluminum frame design, which while durable and strong is heavier and more expensive to manufacture, as admitted in the first paragraph above.
So how will Apple use carbon reinforced plastic with the aforementioned problems? The carbon fibers will be layered and run in different directions, which will allow the mechanical stresses to dispersed. The Summary of the Invention explains:
Generally, the skin is formed from multiple layers of CFRP stacked atop one another. The carbon fibers in each adjacent layer generally run in different directions. This may permit the skin to bend in multiple directions without forming cracks that extend through all layers of the skin, since certain layers may crack while others bend.
By tapering certain segments of the frame and forming a stair-step pattern in adjacent section of the skin, mechanical stresses may be spread over the tapered segments instead of being transmitted from the skin to a single, edge abutment between the two components. Since the stresses are spread across a larger area and not concentrated in a plane defining a joinder between the frame and skin, the skin may be less likely to separate from the frame under stress.
While the patent is overwhelmingly directed to portable electronic devices, such as an iPad, iPhone or iPod, Apple didn’t want to limit its disclosure to those devices. So a laundry list of other implementations is included in the patent, specifically identifying computers, televisions and other similar devices requiring an electronics housing, but also includes discussion of how the associated method could be used to construct the head of a golf club. The patent explains:
Embodiments may house any number of electronic components. For example, certain embodiments may be used to form the exterior surface of a mobile telephone, a laptop or notebook computer, a tablet computing device, a desktop computer, a television, a stereo receiver, or practically any other electronic device. The embodiment may form substantially the entirety of an electronic housing or only a portion, such as the back casing and sidewalls. Alternate embodiments may not be electronics housings at all, but instead may form any number of objects typically made from metals or plastics. For example, certain embodiments may be formed as described herein to create serving utensils or dishes. Others may create boxes or storage containers.
It should be noted that a variety of objects may be formed in accordance with the methods and embodiments described herein. For example, a fiber-in-matrix frame and fiber-in-matrix skin may be used to construct the head of a golf club. A three-dimensional frame in the shape of the club head may be formed and the skin wrapped around and attached to the frame as described above. A single skin may be used or multiple skins may form the exterior of the club head (for example, one skin for each side of the head). Likewise, more than one frame may be employed in certain embodiments. Continuing the example of the golf club head, two frame- one upper and one lower- may be formed and then attached to one another prior to applying the skin(s). Alternative embodiments may take the form of: turbine blades (for example, for a windmill or turbine); propellers; aircraft wings, fins or tail structures; bicycle parts such as crank arms and seat posts; shipping containers; skis and snowboards; and so on.
If Apple is really going to go pedal to the medal with respect to these other implementations I would expect to see some additional patent applications publish. The Apple way is to innovate and patent as many angles of their innovations as they can come up with, which is how they continually maintain an advantage once they establish themselves with a new product on the market.
In the meantime, let the speculation continue. Perhaps the rumored Verizon iPhone, which some expect in March 2011, will employ this lightweight carbon fiber reinforced plastic. Perhaps it will be the iPad 2 in April 2011. Of course, Verizon might not get the iPhone in March 2011, and the iPad 2 might not come out in April 2011, but the speculation can certainly be amusing.