Apple continues to invest in new intellectual property for the injection molding of amorphous liquid metals (aka bulk metallic glasses or BMG) commercialized by Liquidmetal, a Caltech spinoff whose market capitalization plummeted following a much-hyped launch in 2002.
In patent number 9,056,353 published Tuesday, Apple discloses a method to produce Liquidmetal into shapes that can be used as feedstock in injection molding machines. Currently, the molding process starts with ingots that are heated. Introduction of Liquidmetal as pellets could be a significant productivity improvement.
In patent number 9,057,120, also approved Tuesday, Apple for the first time unveils a way to create “a three-dimensional hollow shape with a desirable surface finish” from Liquidmetal. Use of a parison, as described in the patent, takes Liquidmetal into a field similar to the blow molding of plastics.
The parison technology could have two potential purposes: one is to make shapes such as cylinders for consumer electronics and the other is to create larger pieces that take advantage of the strength of Liquidmetal while also reducing the cost.
The Apple technology particularly targets developments aimed at using bulk metallic glasses in applications with a high aspect ratio or low thickness in general. High aspect ratio refers to long thin parts, such as those often found in consumer electronics, where Apple has an exclusive license from Liquidmetal. Swatch has an exclusive license to use the material in watches.
Apple does not comment on how it has used or plans to use bulk metallic glasses in its parts, but its development efforts indicate a strong interest.
Meanwhile, commercial traction elsewhere in injection molding for Liquidmetal is weak because of the highly specialized nature of the technology, long development cycles, its high cost, and overall inertia in the normally conservative manufacturing community. There is no revenue from sale of commercial injection molded parts after five years of effort on Liquidmetal’s part. The big advantage of Liquidmetal is the opportunity to make extremely strong, corrosion-resistant parts in very precise molded shapes.
Phillips-Medisize, one of the world’s most advanced injection molders using both plastics and metals, told The Molding Blog last week that it has closely followed Liquidmetal for several years, but has not yet seen a good fit for any of its customers’ applications. That’s not a good sign for Liquidmetal.
The best hope for Liquidmetal seems to be its developmental partner Engel, which is one of the leading producers of high-technology injection molding machinery in the world. Liquidmetal is one of the technologies that Engel is showing in its three-day technology symposium in Austria that ends today. The venue provides an introduction of the technology to the European molding community, which tends to embrace advanced technologies more readily than American molders.
Meanwhile, the Liquidmetal stock price was trading at just 13 cents per share this morning. Market cap is just $58 million, down from more than a billion dollars in 2002.