Apple Lightning connector Is MIM Now–Liquidmetal Later?

Apple filed a patent application Oct. 25  for its new consumer electronics security system trademarked Lightning that is creating booming demand for precision, net-shape metal injection molded (MIM) parts. The molding is done in China by contract manufacturers .

Titled “Cross Transport Authentication”, the patent describes the system which assures that only authenticated devices can be connected.  In the Lightning connector, the authentication takes place with a chip integrated at one side of a cable.  The authentication controller can transmit audio, video and control signals.

Apple says the controller is necessary to stop access by devices that are error prone and potentially damaging to the media player. Apple, of course, profits significantly from its own branded accessories to iPhones, iPads, and iPods. Most permissions are granted by portable media devices with a communication port coupled with the accessory. In Lightning, authentication of an accessory device takes place through a port that is not coupled with the accessory device. Hence the invention is called cross-transport authentication.

A MIM component is used to house the multi-pin connector that attaches to a USB port. It’s not an elegant design. Its significance lies in its volumes and its potential to be converted to Apple’s growing interest in liquid metal injection molding. The Lightning connector system is used on the new iPhone 5 and iPad mini. Production is said to be running at 5 million parts per month, with volumes sure to grow substantially.

Injection molding would speed production significantly. Powder metal injection molding is a time-consuming process in which parts shrink when baked in ovens. The Lightning part is also said to require finishing, such as polishing for that beautiful Apple look. Cycle times for power metal molding are many hours. Cycle times for liquid metal molding would be in the minutes. Importantly, high-quality surface finishes right out of the tool are possible with liquid metal molding.

Apple’s process, licensed from Liquidmetal, remains developmental although significant progress has been reported.  Apple is making parts with a specially developed press from Engel, a global leader in injection molding. One drawback is materials’ cost. The metals used in the Liquidmetal process are more expensive than the powder metals used in MIM.

In the last nine years, Liquidmetal has produced more than 10 million hinges for mobile phones and smart phones, more than 2 million antennas, and more than 2 million cases.

This week  Liquidmetal announced completion of the first shipment of full production components produced by its certified manufacturing partner.

“This shipment represents an important milestone for our company, advancing us beyond our previous lab and production-prototype capabilities,” said Tom Steipp, LTI’s president and CEO in a press release. “Production prototype parts are necessary for our customers to analyze and qualify parts before full production runs that will occur on a recurring basis. In this case, that process progressed from lab-prototype parts produced in the Liquidmetal R&D facility to production-prototype parts built in our contract manufacturing facility and culminated with fully qualified production parts shipped monthly from our manufacturing partner in Colorado.” The customer was not identified.

Amorphous alloys used by Liquidmetal retain a random structure when they solidify  in contrast to the crystalline atomic structure that forms in ordinary metals and alloys. Liquidmetal Technologies says it is the first company to produce amorphous alloys in commercially viable bulk form.

About Doug Smock

Former Chief Editor at Plastics World and Senior Technical Editor Design News
Asia, Design, Electronics, Metal Injection Molding, North America, Powder Injection , , ,

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