AH Primetime: Carbon-Fiber, Aluminum and Plastic Smartphones

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In the current smartphone market it becomes increasingly important for manufacturers to differentiate their products. There are now a myriad of phones sporting a 1080p screen  and quad-core processors forcing manufacturers to look into different ways to make their phones stand out from the crowd. In the end it falls down into the following categories: design, materials, software and camera; with different manufacturers opting to focus on one aspect over the other.

In my opinion build materials is probably the easiest way to make your product stand out from the crowd. In a sea of plastic products, having your phone built from a more premium material certainly helps it to stand out, especially if it’s in a store where the consumer hasn’t done much research about the phones. Companies that have excelled at utilizing different materials include Motorola and HTC with their introduction of Kevlar backed and aluminium unibody phones respectively. You can argue that the aluminium body of the HTC One was the driving force behind its success, especially when compared to its main competitor Samsung and their insistence on using plastic in their devices.

Obviously manufacturers can’t just use any material to build their phones. The material used to build a phone should be durable; resistant to both drops and scuffs as well as feeling nice in hand by offering a premium feel and assured levels of grip while also being reasonably light. The reason why Samsung continue to use plastic is due to its resilience and lightness, the current Galaxy S4 only weighs 130 grams and that’s with a battery and a large 5 inch display. However plastic falls short when it comes the premium feel with many people viewing the design as plasticky; resembling a toy instead of a premium product. Aluminium on the other hand is extremely durable, light and offers the premium feel that some users are after however aluminium cases are hard to produce; the HTC One and iPhone 5 both require the body to be extensively milled from a solid block of aluminium taking time and money.

One of the proposed materials for future phones has been carbon-fiber and on paper it seems like the perfect substitute. Carbon-fiber is three times stronger than steel, yet only a quarter the weight. The material can also be easily pressed and set into any shape and form making production easy and finally the combination of the texture and resin used to make carbon-fibers means it both offers a reasonable amount of grip, while also feeling like a deluxe product. For that reason manufacturers have been looking into implementing carbon-fiber into their products with Samsung recently announcing their partnership with SGL Group to develop new carbon composites which will pay dividends given the near universal panning of their continued use of plastic in their products.

Despite these partnerships and other forms of speculation regarding manufacturers using carbon-fiber; this wonder material does have an Achilles Heel.  To use injection molding to create a plastic shell for a phone it costs Samsung around $1.50 per pound of plastic. In comparison carbon-fiber will cost anywhere between $5 to $7 per pound of material which makes it four-times more expensive and that’s not including manufacturing costs, however the material has gotten significantly cheaper than it was before where it use to cost $150 per pound. When you factor in the complexities of manufacturing carbon-fiber at a large-scale which has been problematic in the past because while plastic is simply mixed and poured, carbon-fiber needs to be weaved from carbon strands, which themselves take a while to make before they can then be set into a mold and injected with resin. The end result, more expensive phones which in turn makes your products less competitive on price. As a result not many people are taking Samsung’s partnership with SGL seriously and for good reason, the simple increase in costs and switching machinery from plastic mold injection to carbon-fiber processes would require a substantial investment. There have also been other companies that have formed partnerships with little to nothing to show for it; Apple had a deal with a Liquidmetal manufacturers and the fruits of their labor was simply a Liquidmetal SIM card removal tool.

Don’t despair though, all it takes is one brave company to invest and build a carbon-fiber phone for the floodgates to open. We were hoping that the Moto X would be such as device, unfortunately like many others rumors and speculation there appears to be little truth behind the affair. But as carbon-fiber becomes cheaper and as manufacturers aim to differentiate their products we will probably see a carbon-fiber phone, just don’t expect to see one in the near future.