Plastic is the 'new currency' in the cellphone market, analysts claim

Now that Apple has come out and endorsed the use of plastics in smartphones with the iPhone 5c, expect to see a lot more manufacturers making use of plastics over the coming months.

Apple might not have been the first company to use plastics in the construction of the new iPhone 5c, but analysts for IHS say the move will help drive more revenue towards the plastics industry.

Plastic resin for cellphones is already a multibillion-dollar business. In 2012 it alone generated $3.3 billion in revenue, a figure that IHS expects to grow to $3.5 billion in 2013, and a whopping $4.5 billion by 2017. This represents a growth of $1.0 billion in just four years for one segment of the cellphone supply chain.

Growth in plastics usage in cellphones

Cellphone makers use a lot of plastic. This year they are expected to consume some 282,000 metric tons of plastic resin, with this figure increasing to 336,000 metric tons in 2017.

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Even small amounts of plastic add up. The plastic back of the iPhone 5c weighs in at a little over 14 grams, but if Apple sells a forecasted 20 million of these by the end of the year, that alone is 283 metric tons of polycarbonate resin.

"With the introduction of the 5c, Apple now is part of a rising wave of plastic in the smartphone market—and in the overall electronics business," wrote Jagdish Rebello, Ph.D., and senior director for consumer and communications at IHS in an email to ZDNet.

Plastics have a lot of advantages over metal in cellphone construction. It is lighter, easier to mold and finish, cheaper, more transparent to RF, makes assembly cheaper, and allows for more colors to be used.

"Plastics components allow for a great deal of design flexibility as well as product and functional differentiation," wrote Don Bari, senior director, chemicals consulting, for IHS. "OEMs are using a plastic resin called acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), along with polycarbonate and ABS/ polycarbonate blends. By using these plastics in the product housings, the OEMs can offer lightweight products that are visually attractive to customers."

It's also interesting to note that with the iPhone 5c Apple is making a return to plastics after making a switch to metal for most of its products over the past few years.

"The precision-machined metal housing in the iPhone 5s — as well as the earlier-generation iPhone 5 — requires significantly higher machining tolerances and assembly costs," added Rebello. "Apple's return to plastic casings shows that plastics are here to stay."

One of the biggest differences between how Apple uses plastics compared to the completion – such as the likes of Samsung – is that with the iPhone 5c Apple has created a product that doesn't feel like plastic. On handling the iPhone 5c it feels more like enameled metal than plastic, and doesn't feel hollow or fragile. It's the best plastic handset to enter the market since Nokia's Lumia range, which also made extensive use of plastics.

Now that Apple has come out and endorsed the use of plastics in smartphones with the iPhone 5c, expect to see a lot more manufacturers making use of plastics over the coming months. 


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