A few weeks ago, Brian Roemmele penned widely circulated post on Quora articulating a number of reasons why Apple’s next-gen iPhone, a device likely to be called the iPhone 8, will be made out of “stunning ceramic.” While specifically touting the mechanical strength and toughness of zirconium ceramics, Roemmele simultaneously relied upon a number of loosely connected patent filings from Apple to further justify his rather bold prediction.
“Zirconia ceramics exhibits the highest mechanical strength and toughness at room temperature,” Roemmele explained. “Zirconium ceramics have the highest fracture toughness of any advanced technical ceramic. Its toughness, mechanical properties and corrosion resistance make it ideal for high pressure applications.”
On the surface, Roemmele’s explanation is certainly compelling, especially since the last three iterations of the iPhone all, more or less, look and feel the same. That said, the idea of a new iPhone model made out of a completely novel and advanced material with space-age characteristics understandably got the Apple masses excited.
For anyone out there who got excited about Apple’s iPhone 8 being made out of ceramics, well, it’s time to jump back to reality. In fact, you can probably bet good money that the iPhone 8 will assuredly not be made out of zirconia ceramics.
Earlier this week, product designer Greg Koenig of Atomic Delights penned an incredibly detailed and straight-forward post explaining why the iPhone 8 will likely be made out of familiar materials. In short, any grand visions of a ceramic iPhone will have to be put on hold.
Based on the manufacturing process Apple utilizes to produce the white ceramic Apple Watch — as detailed in a booklet included within the wearable’s packaging — Koenig explains that it would be highly impractical if not downright foolish to assume that Apple could scale this same process over to the iPhone without anyone noticing.
The process they describe is meticulously executed, and because of the nature of the design – wherein ceramics are mimicking the engineering layout of far more easily produced materials – probably the most laboriously produced ceramic watch on the market. In fact, if we scale the numbers used in the booklet up to iPhone size devices and cycle times, Apple would need 2 football field’s worth of kiln space for each ceramic iPhone to sinter for the requisite 36 hours. For the 2 hours of hard ceramic machining to finish the case details, Apple would need to go from 20,000 CNC machines, to 250,000. They would need another 200,000 employees to perform the 2 hours of hand polishing to “bring out the strength and luster.”
More bluntly, not only is Apple not using any new ceramics manufacturing technology in the new Watch Edition, they are not even utilizing the primary patent the original Quora article pins most of it’s extrapolations on – that patent described a vacuum liquid slurry casting process for ceramics. The Edition watch uses a very common pressed powder forming method.
Additionally, the logistics involved in acquiring the requisite machinery in sufficient volume to mass produce tens of millions of ceramic iPhones would seemingly preclude the plan from getting off the ground in time for the iPhone 8.
“To do this,” Koenig writes, “Apple would need to essentially flip the switch on an investment of roughly the same size of the current, machining footprint. Not only would this be a logistical nightmare, but finding a company to produce that much machinery without 3-4 years of lead time would be almost impossible.”
With Apple reportedly “manufacturing roughly 1 million iPhones per day” during peak production times, it’s important to remember that any new process or material Apple wants to incorporate into the iPhone has to be able to scale. All told, you should definitely read Koenig’s full explanation, especially if you’re the least bit interested in the advanced manufacturing processes and logistical considerations that go into mass producing a device as popular and widely distributed as the iPhone.