The material choice addresses one of the chief complaints from product reviewers: the look of composite-based housings. Covestro says that the external appearance of its sheets differs from typical semi-finished plastics with their “organic” grain pattern. In addition, the materials are cool to the touch, due to their thermal conductivity, and sound like metals on impact, adding to consumers’ perception of product durability.
“They provide the best strength-to-weight ratio of all standard composites on the market and also outperform metals in this respect, which means they’re ideal for making parts for IT devices that are impressively robust despite their thin-walled, lightweight design,” commented David Hartmann, one of the heads of Covestro’s thermoplastic composites work, in a statement on the technology.
But driving the use of new materials in consumer devices has its challenges. According to Halford, the original equipment manufacturer brands will not single source. “So it doesn’t matter if I have the best nanotechnology on the planet. If I’m the only one, procurement will not be allowed to buy from me,” he explains. “The irony is you need an ecosystem realistically in China that’s already up and running to cope with the production ramp ups.”
Aside from the high cost, this marks a significant reason that carbon fiber will likely remain limited to high-end devices – and not your everyday smartphone as Samsung reportedly considered back in 2013 when it formed its joint venture with SGL Group, Samsung SGL Carbon Composites Materials. Using carbon fiber would require adaption of production processes.
Halford adds, “One of the things that China does incredibly well is scale, but what it doesn’t do is get carbon fiber properly, yet. We’ve been in factories where they just don’t understand it. They’re used to injection molding. They have maybe 1,500 injection molding machines in a ‘small’ plant, and six people who actually understand the process. If a supplier comes along with a new material, it better work on the existing machinery and cycles because they are not going to change those machines. So, when you turn up with carbon fiber, with +/-5 percent thickness variations, you’ve got some serious work to do.”