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Jonathan Ive: next-gen Apple products will use all-new materials

Apple has always been a pioneer when it comes to materials. The company was among the first to use titanium to make its notebooks and was one of the first makers to use aluminium bodies for its laptops. The company continuously experiments with new materials to further improve its devices. Recently Jonathan Ive, the head of design at Apple, reaffirmed that certain future products from the company will be made of something else than Corning’s Gorilla Glass or aluminium.

“I would love to talk about future stuff – they are materials we have not worked in before,” said Jonathan Ive, senior vice president of design at Apple, in an interview with the New York Times. “I have been working on this stuff for a few years now. Tim is fundamentally involved in pushing into these new areas and into these materials.”

For a number of years rumours about Apple’s plan to use the LiquidMetal alloy as well as sapphire glass have been circulating. However, at present the company does not use the Liquidmetal at all and only uses sapphire crystal glass for lenses and “home” buttons on the iPhone 5s.

Apple has exclusive rights to make consumer electronics products, such as computers, smartphones, tablets, smart-watches and other devices of the Liquidmetal alloy. The company first signed an exclusive agreement in 2010, then extended it in 2012 and recently it prolonged it further till February, 2015. Apple has secured exclusive supply of synthetic sapphire crystal glass from GT Advanced (which is probably one of the world’s largest makers of this material) and even invested into additional production capacities for the company early in 2013 – 2014.

The alloy developed by Liquidmetal can be cast in different forms and will retain a good look, remarkable strength, scratch and corrosion resistance as well as other advantages, such as light weight, elasticity and so on. At present the material is used in various medical, military, industrial, sports and technical applications. Synthetic sapphire crystal glass is much more rugged and scratch-resistant than the Corning Gorilla Glass used today.

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While it is possible to use almost any materials for limited edition products, when it comes to Apple, it is necessary to manufacture tens of millions of units. In order to do that with brand-new materials, all-new supply chains (which consist of multiple new partners) have to be created. Tim Cook, which used to be the chief operating officer of Apple, is one of the world’s best supply chain specialists.

“I remember clearly a time when we made plastic portable computers, and Steve and Tim and I sat down and said we wanted to build an incredibly thin and light portable computer,” said Mr. Ive. “There was a whole range of challenges from an engineering point of view: How it worked in a new material, titanium. That meant we had to completely redesign and discover new partners to work with, hire a whole new organization.”

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KitGuru Says: It remains to be seen what materials and what “new stuff” Jonathan Ive talked about in the interview. While the liquid metal alloy remains an interesting candidate for adoption, it is likely that initially it will be used only for the iWatch devices, not smartphones, tablets or notebooks.

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