A wonderful rumour is circulating in the Applesphere, regarding a brick. The Apple Brick.
The phrase itself has been around for a while, although nobody outside the company had any idea what it might mean. This latest information – which smells well-sourced – is that it's not a product but a manufacturing process with a factory wrapped around it. The basic idea is that Apple will be able to mass-produce cases carved out of solid ingots of aluminium (or aluminum, if you're American), using an as yet undisclosed system with lasers, water jets and tons of computer control.
The implications of this are enormous. If you can sculpt cases of any shape, then you're released from the restraints and complications of having to bolt multiple parts together. You can create brand new shapes to put things in – and, most excitingly, put them into full-scale production as quickly as you can design them. Also, full-scale production can be a million pieces or just the one: aside from the time taken to design and verify a piece, it costs just the same to make one of one, or one of a million.
What Apple has made, if the rumour is true, is a factory that prints cases.
Of course, the details will make all the difference. When you carve things from solid blocks of material, the vast majority of the material ends up as scrap. There's no way the plant will be economical, let alone environmentally acceptable, if it doesn't reuse that scrap by melting it down into new ingots. The good news is that it only takes around five percent of the energy to remelt aluminium as it does to refine it from ore: the bad news is that if you've got 90 percent-plus waste from each ingot, a lot of that aluminium will be remelted multiple times before it gets into a product. Still, it means Apple will have a very good economic reason to get back old devices from customers: once you build recycling into your entire supply chain, the numbers get very interesting.
Verification of products is also tricky. Things like FCC approval for electronic devices are dependent on having samples of a product provided for testing, and the physical details of the casing are very important in ensuring electromagnetic and safety compliance. How will that work if a company can change case design on a whim? There are various possible answers to that, from using pre-approved modules to having an active compliance testing system as part of the design process: more than just the factory will have to evolve.
However – again, if all this is true – the implications don't stop there. Apple will have no reason to stop at iPods, iPhones and laptops. Such a design and production system will scale up and down pretty much at will: even if you want to make something very much larger than the plant can make directly, it can print out components that efficiently clip together. Once you start thinking in those terms, you can come up with new consumer markets for extremely good design skills, high technology smarts and marketing genius as fast as you can think.
Rumours of the Apple Car start here. Why stop there? During the Sony Walkman's 80s heyday, a newspaper cartoon had two people looking out of a skyscraper window at a crowd of people flying past on angel wings - captioned "Looks like the Japanese have done it again".
Right ocean. Wrong coast.