Greg Koenig is an industrial designer and co-founder of Luma Labs in Portland, Oregon. This post originally appeared on his blog, Atomic Delights.
Apple is the world’s foremost manufacturer of goods. At one time, this statement had to be caged and qualified with modifiers such as “consumer goods” or “electronic goods,” but last quarter, Apple shipped a Boeing 787’s weight’s worth of iPhones every 24 hours. When we add the rest of the product line to the mix, it becomes clear that Apple’s supply chain is one of the largest-scale production organizations in the world.
While Boeing is happy to provide tours of their facility in Everett, Washington, Apple continues to operate with Willy Wonka levels of secrecy. In the manufacturing world, we hear rumors of entire German CNC mill factories being built to supply Apple exclusively, or even occasionally hear that one of our suppliers’ process experts has been “disappeared” to move to Cupertino or Shenzhen. While we all are massively impressed with the scale of Apple’s operations, there is constant intrigue as to exactly how they pull it all off with the level of fit, finish and precision obvious to anyone who has examined their hardware.
This walkthrough is a detailed narration of what we see in Apple’s Watch craftsmanship videos. Of course, we get to see only a mere fraction of the process; I’ve tried to provide plausible explanations for the likely steps taking place between the processes shown on film, but these are assumptions and are included only to provide a more satisfying and complete narration.
Gold has always been the wrong metal to make a watch out of; its low yield strength and softness is incompatible with the tremendous amount of abuse an object worn on the wrist receives on a day-to-day basis.
Driven by a history of desire going back millennia, alchemists and metallurgists have alloyed pure gold with nearly every combination of metals on the periodic table in order to overcome these limitations.
The standards for 18-karat gold allow for a tremendous amount of leeway in producing innovative alloys (which may be comprised of anything, as long as the final product contains 75%-79.99% pure gold by weight), and major producers of gold goods have used that flexibility to each create proprietary formulations in an attempt to gain competitive advantage. Rolex built an in-house foundry at their Plan-les-Ouates complex in Geneva to produce all of their precious metals.
Hublot has trumpeted their composite ceramic “Magic Gold” as being significantly more durable than anything else available. Recently, Apple patents were uncovered detailing a metal matrix composite process to produce 18-karat standard compliance gold with a significant weight reduction and durability increase.
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