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Does Apple Have a Secret Factory?

Does Apple Have a Secret Factory?

The latest Apple rumor has the company introducing a revolutionary new manufacturing process for the aluminum shells of its MacBook line of notebook computers. The process starts with a brick of aluminum, which is shaped by lasers and water jets into a seamless, screwless case.

The Apple blognoscenti, having digested and discarded last week's Steve Jobs heart attack report hoax, have moved on to more pressing matters: rumors that the company's forthcoming new MacBook computers are the products of a revolutionary new manufacturing process.

The speculation started on the 9-to-5 Mac blog that Apple's new notebooks -- to be introduced Oct. 14 -- may be carved out of bricks of aircraft-quality aluminum by lasers and high-powered water jets at a new state-of-the-art factory that Jobs has managed to build under the media's radar. The "brick" process, called a "game-changer" by the blog, would mean no folded metal and fewer screws on a computer; a seamless shell that could open up new design possibilities while also taking advantage of a manufacturing plant that would be energy-efficient and environmentally friendly.

9-to-5 Mac blog author Seth Weintraub, who also writes the Apple Ink blog, cites a source within Apple for details. He also points to comments during Apple's recent earnings call from Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer, who spoke of an innovation on the horizon that would cut into operating margins short-term but would eventually allow the company to pull away from competitors in pricing and design.

Another Trip to Apple Rumorville

The brick process, if real, could bring great benefits to the manufacturing of computers, Gartner analyst Mark Margevicius told MacNewsWorld -- but he's still waiting for evidence to reverse his initial skepticism.

"Less touch times, fewer parts, lighter materials -- it's all goodness," Margevicius said. "One of the things that's intrigued me with aluminum is that it's heat-dissipating. If the heat were to be channeled through the notebook case itself, that's pretty cool. If the case ends up being a heat sink of some sort, that to me would be pretty innovative."

Still, this is Apple, so it may be a good idea to keep one's hype shields up.

"A game-changer? I have a hard time believing that if I save three or four ounces on a notebook, that it's a game-changer, said Margevicius. "The hype around this company can be pretty extreme at times."

Bloggers Vetting the Blogosphere

"I'm not an expert on aluminum manufacturing processes," Apple 2.0 blogger Philip Elmer-DeWitt told MacNewsWorld, "but I did enough checking to know there are industrial technologies for airplane manufacturers that involve laser-cutting for aluminum. There are pros and cons; there's tricky stuff about swirls and shockwaves and turbulence flow. It's a fairly sophisticated technology, and it's real. That seems to be credible. [Weintraub's] got a source, and it may very well be true."

Perhaps Apple actually already has built a factory using this technology -- or maybe not, said Elmer-DeWitt. "Maybe one of their Asian suppliers is using this technology."

Apple deserves credit not only for keeping secrets, but also for stoking the blog fires about products that are mere days to weeks away from being unveiled, both Elmer-DeWitt and Margevicius agree.

The 9-to-5 Mac blog has printed other reports about Apple rumors over the years that have turned out to be true, said Elmer-DeWitt, who gives credit where it's due -- even if it's to a competing blogger.


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