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

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

Summary: 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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TOPICS: Mobility, Apple
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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.

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. 

Topics: Mobility, Apple

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19 comments
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  • Your Apple fanboism is at its peak

    just saying. We have plastic cellphones already in the market. Now you tell us Apple "Invented" Plastic phones! LoL. I think there is a limit to everything except your fanboism.
    Ram U
    • Also you should see some of Nokia's phones

      They are using plastic for the past few years and you don't feel it as plastic at all.
      Ram U
      • To be fair, Apple sold plastic phones last year, and it has them this year,

        ... so basically in each year since 2008 Apple had plastic phones on sale. Though there was a period from October of last year to September of this year when Apple did not have plastic phones on sale.

        At the same time, lets not get confused: iPhone 5C is no way "budget" phone, and it is manufactured accordingly. It still has metal frame inside, the plastic is only outside shell. Not like other cheapo bending plastic phones.
        DDERSSS
        • Weren't the backs of the iPhone 3G and 3GS....

          ....plastic???
          Userama
          • Yep.

            as was just about any other phone as well, in addition other phones aren't necessarily all plastic internally like DDERSSS seems to claim, for example the Galaxy S III had a magnesium internal frame.
            nbates66
          • aww no edit

            not forgetting of course any of the Nokia Lumias or 2010-2012 HTC phones.
            nbates66
          • Anyone who starts an article with:

            "Apple might not have been the first company to use plastics in the construction of the new iPhone 5c"

            Is just plain silly. Plastic has been used by Apple and other vendors for years (I love my Cyan Lumia 920). But, I'm pretty sure Apple was the first company to use plastic in an iPhone 5c.
            Flydog57
    • Where did he say Apple invented plastic phones?

      If I read Adrian correctly, he said Apple is endorsing the trend towards plastics for high end smart phones. No where did he claim Apple invented plastic smart phones.
      soonerproud
      • Read the summary.

        Of course he didn't use the word invent. But his summary implied that:
        "Summary: 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."
        Ram U
        • Re: Read the summary.

          Indeed, read the summary. Then try to comprehend what you read.

          Not much to comprehend though, as it was clearly written already: Apple has come out and endorsed the use of plastics in smartphones with the iPhone 5c

          It is well known, that for years Apple does set the "standard" in smartphones. Whatever Apple do, others consider "good" too.

          Therefore, those manufacturers of plastic resins can now go to each of the manufacturers and say "Look, even Apple are now using plastics in the iPhone (again), so why are you wasting your efforts and money with an all-metal (and not buying more plastics from us) design?"
          danbi
  • Umm, your iPad messed up again Adrian...

    "One of the biggest differences between how Apple uses plastics compared to the completion"
    Maybe you should turn off the automatic spelling, and use the word you actually wanted...
    "competition". iPlastic doesn't feel like plastic?? So, even though other OEMs have been using plastics on various electronics for years, those were inferior to iPlastic? There have been many instances of metallic finishes being used on plastic cases of all types for a long time.
    wizard57m-cnet
    • Automatic word substitution is quite annoying

      Its much worse than the misspelled word it replaced although sometimes it's funny.
      greywolf7
  • Interesting topic

    and kind of leads back to prior blogs on e-waste. How relatively minor seeming additions/substitutions to a product that sells in the 10s of millions suddenly translates into 10-100s of metric tons of waste.
    oncall
  • Plastic will be used in smartphones after 5C

    That's something never heard of before :)
    AleMartin
  • coffee first, then start blogging

    "Apple might not have been the first company to use plastics in the construction of the new iPhone 5c,"

    Of course they were. Nobody else makes the iPhone 5c. Apple was obviously not the first to use plastics in the construction of a smart phone, as evidenced by hundreds of posts on ZDnet talkbacks in which Apple fans explain why plastic was far inferior to metal for phone construction before Apple decided to switch from using plastic to metal for the housing. Now we will get to see those same folks explain why plastic is the new metal...

    "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"

    Once again, Apple is following the pack. Other phone manufacturer's were using plastic for phone housings before Apple even had a phone on the market. A flimsy metal shell is no better than a flimsy plastic shell, and a durable plastic shell can be even better than a durable metal shell - see the Nokia 3310.
    john-whorfin
  • Re: more like enameled metal than plastic

    Because it is.

    The iPhone 5C case is in fact all metal, coated with colored plastics.
    danbi
  • False

    "The rich and particular color we wanted to infuse into iPhone 5c simply wasn’t possible with metal. But we had no interest in imitating the typical, fragile plastic phone. So we built iPhone 5c around a steel-reinforced frame that also acts as an antenna"

    http://www.apple.com/iphone-5c/design/

    metal frame, plastic housing, just like the majority of cell-phones being made. You're getting sloppy danbi - outright lies are usually not your thing.
    john-whorfin
  • This is a completely irrelivant article

    Which lends only to full Apple fanboism. Apple making plastic phones or not plastic phones doesnt mean anything at all. its just more plastic business, but to see how well the 5c will even sell is still a factor. Either way everyone else uses plastic, but more things are moving to metal so..... Apple can do w/e, it really doesn't matter for everyone else.
    To write an article about this simply because Apple came out with a plastic iPhone is really just ignorant.
    Jimster480
  • So when others like Nokia were making plastic phones....

    Were the tech writers falling over themselves to admire and coo over the Nokia phones for using plastics? Heck, even my HTC Inspire used plastic that did not feel plastic'y.
    Rann Xeroxx