Apple has acquired a deep materials’ technology bench that will help in developing lightweight structural and body materials for the electric auto it has been secretly developing. According to the Wall Street Journal, Apple has hired a well-known industrial designer, and now has several hundred employees working on the electric car project. Initial talks have reportedly taken place with a European contract manufacturing arm of Magna.
Clearly, any car from Apple—if in fact one is ever developed—is several years off.
But basic R&D conducted by Apple, including development of proprietary technology in super-strong lightweight materials such as injected molded amorphous metals and carbon composites, could help give the company an edge well beyond its iconic styling knowhow.
In August, 2010, Apple entered into a license agreement with Apple to acquire all of the IP from Liquidmetal, a Caltech spinoff that is the world leader in commercial development of amorphous metal alloys, which are stronger than titanium. Amorphous alloys retain a random structure when they solidify, in contrast to the crystalline atomic structure that forms in ordinary metals and alloys.
Importantly, Liquidmetal—a collection of various exotic metallic alloys– can be injection molded with commercial equipment, creating potential for large-scale series production. Apple has an exclusive license for consumer electronics now. Apple could also apply its Liquidmetal IP, some of it molding related, to development of structural components and engine components for cars. Liquidmetal works best for small, intricate components because of its high cost.
The licensing agreement, along with one for Swatch in the watches area, was a financial lifeline for Liquidmetal, which has struggled to commercialize its process.
A very important, related development has been the ability (and willingness) of Engel—a premier builder of injection machines for the global market—to modify its plastic injection molding machine to accommodate Liquidmetal, not an easy task. (see photo and caption below). Liquidmetal, the company, has decided to manufacture parts captively and recently ordered a second Engel molding machine for its Rancho Santa Margarita headquarters in California. Liquidmetal last month announced its first contract to produce parts at the factory, a knife for the Miltner Adams Co. Engel has significant experience providing molding machinery for the automotive industry.
German auto OEMs are currently the global leaders in the development of carbon composite automotive applications, although GM and Ford are also quite interested. Despite the cost of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) it is the preferred material for use in new electric cars, where every pound saved reduces battery requirements.
In 2012, Apple was granted a U.S. patent for a carbon composite mold design. The invention presents systems to facilitate the mass production of carbon composite molded parts. There is considerable detail on real bread-and-butter mechanical issues including a fluid-actuated ejection system and ejector pins that could quickly remove CFRP parts without damaging them.
Apple has also invested in a deep bench of composite plastics talent such as Paul Choiniere, who has been manager of materials and processing at Apple for the past nine years. He has 18 years of experience in the plastics industry, including five years at GE Plastics (now SABIC IP) where he set the direction for the development of future materials in “thinwall” notebook computer designs in the 1990s. Kevin Kenney, who has 20 years’ experience in composites, joined Apple four years ago as senior composites engineer. Daryl Schilke joined Apple last year as plastic tooling engineer, after 10 years at Phillips Healthcare as a tooling and materials engineer. Another Apple tooling engineer with experience in composites, Josh Hoover, had previously worked at Motorola as senior tooling engineer.
Glenn Aune, who left Apple recently to establish his own consulting firm, was a senior tooling engineer at Apple for 15 years. Daniel Hong, one of the engineers who developed the CFRP mold patent, is now senior purchasing manager at Tesla, a builder of electric cars.
These materials development projects will be expensive. But Apple reported cash holdings of$178 billion at the end of last year.
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