Friday, October 24th, 2008

You Can’t Judge a MacBook by Its Cover: Plastics Critical to Inside Operation of Electronics

On Tuesday, the Associated Press came out with a fairly positive review of Apple Inc.’s new MacBook laptops. But the critic misleadingly went out of his way to cite the company’s effort at “getting rid of plastic” in the design of the product:

“Just look at the effort Apple Inc. put into getting rid of plastic when designing its new $1,300 MacBook laptops, which went on sale last week. Apple now is machining the upper part of the chassis from a single block of aluminum, shaving it down to perhaps one-tenth of its original mass…The only things that are still plastic are the keys, the Apple logo on the lid, the bumpers on the bottom and some cladding on the hinge between the bottom and the display.”

That is only looking at the surface — rather than the more critical “guts” — of what truly goes on inside many of the electronic products we love. Look inside the MacBook here. Almost six minutes in, the video shows you the insides of the computer — be sure to note all the plastic parts. I doubt the AP reporter, and probably most consumers, realize that plastic products are essential to making what’s “under the hood” of almost all of our electronic products: computers, iPods, BlackBerrys®, TVs and more.

The continuing miniaturization of circuit boards and components such as computer chips increasingly relies on high-performance plastics to provide tough, stable parts that can withstand both the stress of assembly and the strain of use. With plastics, electronic designers simultaneously can decrease size and increase the functionality of circuitry in consumer, business and industrial electronics. Nowhere is the role more apparent than in the production of microprocessors, memory chips, and the integrated circuits that give computers the brains to perform. The printed circuit boards depend on insulated layering supplied by epoxy resin. The web of insulated copper wire (nylon coatings) and fiber optics (epoxy resins, silicones, and PVC — although the MacBook claims to be PVC-free) are what enable most computers to send communications around the globe. In fact, special plastics play a critical role in wire and cable for insulation because they have superior dielectric qualities as well as excellent resistance to heat and flame.

I wonder how hot the MacBook runs. Most laptops get pretty warm if they have been running for a long time. With an aluminum case, wouldn’t it conduct the heat and make everything hotter? I also wonder about its monitor. While the display is probably made of glass, the new LEDs that it uses for illumination probably incorporate plastic lenses. Finally, if the MacBook has a power cord (batteries don’t run forever) or a mouse, I’m willing to bet they are plastic.

Oh, and let’s take a moment to mention that the compact disc, whether for video games, music, data or movie (DVD) is a polycarbonate – a multi-purpose plastic with high-impact strength.

In fairness, the AP reporter’s review does give a nod to plastics when he compares the MacBook to a Hewlett-Packard competitor:

“Of course, the HP computer is plastic, but from a utilitarian point of view, that isn’t a bad material for consumer electronics. It’s tough. It’s light. It’s easy to manufacture. High-end cameras used to have shells of brass and aluminum, but they were prone to denting, so the metal was phased out in favor of plastics that were tougher and gave a better grip.”

But he is still kicking the tires and admiring the paint job. Next time, if he wants to see the horsepower plastics provide, he should check under the hood.

(For another angle on the MacBook, read The Plastics Blog.)

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