Apple Interested in Liquidmetal Alloys for Home Buttons, Touch Sensors, and Tamper-Resistant Screws

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Apr 12, 2001
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Back in 2010, Apple signed an exclusive agreement with Caltech spinoff Liquidmetal Technologies, providing Apple with the rights to use Liquidmetal's advanced metal alloys for consumer electronics purposes. Liquidmetal's amorphous metal alloys or bulk metallic glasses posses a number of characteristic properties such as high strength and corrosion resistance while remaining relatively light and able to be cast into a variety of forms.

Apple quietly tested Liquidmetal's alloys in the SIM card eject tool for the iPhone 3G, but the materials have otherwise not been confirmed to have appeared in any other Apple products, as one of alloys' inventors noted in 2012 that their use as major design materials was still several years in the future.

Evidence of Apple's continued interest with Liquidmetal alloys has surfaced a number of times over the past several years, including in a granted patent from July covering a process for mass producing thin sheets of the Liquidmetal alloys and a series of technical patent applications published in November describing methods of working with the alloys to create products.

A number of patent applications addressing additional innovations with Liquidmetal alloys have been published since that time, including a batch of 17 applications published just this past Thursday. Many of these applications are not yet listed as being assigned to Apple, but the inventors listed on the patents are Apple employees who have routinely been associated with the company's work on Liquidmetal alloys in the past.

One of these patent applications proposes using Liquidmetal alloys in pressure sensors such as those found in buttons and switches on mobile devices, offering greater durability under repeated use. Figures accompanying the patent application closely resemble the iconic home button found on Apple's iOS devices.
Because switches on consumer electronic devices are operated frequently, the materials used to fabricate the switch must be capable of repeated deformation and return to their original configuration. The ability of a material to deform reversibly under stress is known as the material's elasticity. Above a certain stress, known as the elastic limit of a material or the yield strength, the metal material may deform irreversibly, becoming inelastic, exhibiting plasticity and adversely affecting the function and utility of the switch. [...]

A proposed solution according to embodiments herein for pressure sensors is to use bulk-solidifying amorphous alloys as the deformable material, and to measure the pressure based on the physical changes of the bulk-solidifying amorphous alloy as it is deformed.
Button or switch using Liquidmetal alloy as deformable material
Another application published in mid-December describes how Liquidmetal alloys could be used as material for tamper-resistant screws to help secure devices against unauthorized access.
A proposed solution according to embodiments herein for tamper resistance is a fastener having a head portion and a tamper resistant bulk-solidifying amorphous alloy interlock portion, wherein the fastener and the substrate into which the fastener is fitted into are permanently fastened via an interlock formed from the interlock portion during the fastening process.
Tamper-resistant screw made of Liquidmetal alloys
A third patent application addresses the use of Liquidmetal alloys as a substrate for touch sensors found in displays such as in Apple's iOS devices. Apple describes how discrete areas of crystallinity can be created on the amorphous metal substrate, allowing for greater control and higher density of touch sensing arrays, thus giving greater positional precision for touch sensing.

Touch sensor grid using Liquidmetal alloy as substrate
Most of the remaining patents are more technical in nature, addressing methods for working with Liquidmetal alloys or assessing their characteristics. One such patent application does, however, address methods for applying or transforming coatings to an amorphous material, allowing for increased durability and strength by protecting the underlying metal.

All of these patent applications were filed in June or July of 2012, suggesting that Apple may have made significant progress on these disclosed inventions since that time. It is unclear, however, whether any of the techniques or proposed components have made their way into shipping products or if they remain in the research or prototyping phase.

(Thanks, David!)

Article Link: Apple Interested in Liquidmetal Alloys for Home Buttons, Touch Sensors, and Tamper-Resistant Screws
 

XboxMySocks

macrumors 68020
Oct 25, 2009
2,197
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I remember how the SIM Card tray was liquidmetal on the 3G. For whatever reason.
 
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XboxMySocks

macrumors 68020
Oct 25, 2009
2,197
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Sim card tray remover was liquid metal. Pretty sure the tray was plastic.
Right. Thanks for clarifying.

Any idea how the heck interlock screws are supposed to be removed? How does apple service these devices?
 
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chrmjenkins

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Oct 29, 2007
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Right. Thanks for clarifying.

Any idea how the heck interlock screws are supposed to be removed? How does apple service these devices?
It does say permanent. So perhaps they would look for evidence of tampering as a reason to disqualify warranty claims? My guess is that they'd never implement such a practice as it would be seen as extremely anti-consumer.

Perhaps there is another plan, such as with a special fixture (or perhaps heating method for metal expansion/contraction) that allows the screws to release for service.

However, just because you patent something does not mean you intend to use it.
 
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anubis

macrumors 6502a
Feb 7, 2003
937
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Right. Thanks for clarifying.

Any idea how the heck interlock screws are supposed to be removed? How does apple service these devices?
I think the point is that with the tamper resistant screws, you DON'T service them. Neither does Apple. The device is permanently sealed and if you need to repair the device, you throw the device away and get a new one.

I think out of all of the patents in this story, the tamper resistant screw should set off the most alarm bells.
 
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chrmjenkins

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Oct 29, 2007
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I think the point is that with the tamper resistant screws, you DON'T service them. Neither does Apple. The device is permanently sealed and if you need to repair the device, you throw the device away and get a new one.

I think out of all of the patents in this story, the tamper resistant screw should set off the most alarm bells.
Yeah, though I wonder how many cases there would be where a user could service a device and obtain satisfactory functionality that Apple couldn't achieve the same results. It seems more likely it would be to force service with them rather than force a new device purchase.
 
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taptic

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Dec 5, 2012
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California
So wait, is this to try to keep people from doing things like repairing their iPhone themselves? What's with the tamper resistant screws?
 
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KazKam

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Oct 25, 2011
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I think the point is that with the tamper resistant screws, you DON'T service them. Neither does Apple. The device is permanently sealed and if you need to repair the device, you throw the device away and get a new one.

I think out of all of the patents in this story, the tamper resistant screw should set off the most alarm bells.
I'm confused by the method of tamper resistant screw outlined here too, but I don't think this means it's not serviceable as you suggest. Tamper resistant means just that... not to be tampered with, casually. If the point is for it not to be serviceable at all, why even use a fastener with a head? Why not a rivet or a weld?
 
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Wiesenlooser

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Jul 9, 2010
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Would be kind of funny after years of Liquidmetal speculation, that they bought it only to make the home buttons a bit more robust :D
 
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Nozuka

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Jul 3, 2012
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sounds good, i remember the home button on my iphone4 getting less and less responsive after 2 years.
 
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Lepton

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Apr 13, 2002
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Cold Spring Harbor, NY
There are lots of cases where you might want to fasten something and then never unfasten it. For example, places where you would ordinarily use a rivet, or welding. These types of screws may be useful for simpler automated machinery to do that kind of fastening.
 
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chrmjenkins

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Oct 29, 2007
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If the point is for it not to be serviceable at all, why even use a fastener with a head? Why not a rivet or a weld?
Also a good point. I'm sure it has negligible impact on manufacturability or production cost to use one of those methods instead of a screw. Though stage of manufacture would be important for any method that involves heat because you wouldn't want any electronics installed at that stage.

There are lots of cases where you might want to fasten something and then never unfasten it. For example, places where you would ordinarily use a rivet, or welding. These types of screws may be useful for simpler automated machinery to do that kind of fastening.
Perhaps, but I cannot think of any case where that would be obvious. I'd bet screwing could take a relatively longer time as a manufacturing step.
 
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toby00001

macrumors newbie
Aug 24, 2012
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Helsinki, Finland
Devices with 'tamper-resistant' screws will be serviceable with the right tool, which I'm sure will be available from certain 3rd parties such as iFixit.

Apple has no interest whatsoever in users servicing their own devices. Remember servicing and upgrading are different things - all portable devices are now designed with zero user upgradable components, which would lead me to believe that they may feature these fancy screws in future iterations. The iMac and Mac Mini will likely also include these screws and continue to offer tool-free entry to the memory bays. The Mac Pro will probably not feature this technology given that the power user base need to be able to service and upgrade their machines.
 
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ElTorro

macrumors 6502
Jan 23, 2013
273
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Temper resistant screws = one more level of control and a way to make it impossible to repair the products.
I hope they won't start putting them into the macs.
 
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springsup

macrumors 65816
Feb 14, 2013
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That LiquidMetal exclusivity agreement could turn out to be a major, major coup for Apple.
 
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lolkthxbai

macrumors 65816
May 7, 2011
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Would be kind of funny after years of Liquidmetal speculation, that they bought it only to make the home buttons a bit more robust :D
Well, if I read that article correctly, it could be used for a keyboard too. Maybe one in a future Smart Cover/Case?
 
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willcapellaro

macrumors 6502
Oct 20, 2011
345
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I thought the home button was going away at some point in time.
It's core iOS DNA. Just because android devices do without it, doesn't mean that every platform has to be the same.

Some really want the home button to go away. Not sure what to make of such pleas. I try to appreciate Android, Windows Phone, and iOS each on their own merits.
 
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Thunderhawks

Suspended
Feb 17, 2009
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sounds good, i remember the home button on my iphone4 getting less and less responsive after 2 years.
Are you saying my wife should push my home button less to make me more responsive?

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Temper resistant screws = one more level of control and a way to make it impossible to repair the products.
I hope they won't start putting them into the macs.
To all concerned about the temper resistant screws:

If it is made by humans it can be solved by humans.

So, no matter what these screws will be defeated by us.

Worst case we re-drill and put in another kind of screw or we'll check the 526,917 possibilities on You Tube.
Not to worry. Anybody who tinkers will not be distraught by this.
 
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