Apple's MacBook -- The case of the new machine

Is the newest laptop Apple's next Cube? Or a great leap ahead?

The new 15-in. MacBook sports a "unibody" aluminum case.

The new 15-in. MacBook sports a "unibody" aluminum case.

Whenever Apple releases newly designed products -- meaning hardware offering more than just a speed bump -- the greater question is, "What does it mean?" That is, are the new features mere anomalies, or are they something truly new that will set the shape, material and design of the future?

The most obvious negative example remains the loved-by-some, hated-by-more Cube, a compact desktop Mac with a sexy Lucite skin that, unfortunately, cracked and scratched easily. That plus expandability issues, a vertical optical drive and problematic ports pushed this undeniably unique design onto the scrap heap of history.

But the new laptops Apple revealed this week, promise a more material great leap ahead -- not so much for the technical specs -- Intel's Nehalem processors, due next year, will kick the whole speed thing up a serious notch -- but in terms of materials and processes.

Tucked in among the now-standard talking heads that populate Apple events, the MacBook video on Apple's site shows and tells all about how the new "unibody" casings are extruded, CNC machined, milled and lasered into submission. Suddenly outdated are the standard construction processes of stamping the case and bolting structural elements on.

Those who love fine bicycles have long understood of the structural superiority of machined rather than stamped metal parts -- whole companies use only CNC machining, water jets and laser cutting to optimize strength and minimize weight. Now it appears that Apple has come to understand that as well. CEO Steve Jobs and his colleagues were clearly pleased with their discovery, and now that Apple's moving toward new manufacturing methods, we can hope it learns a bit about materials, too. Other industries have been tweaking aluminum, titanium and steel alloys for decades.

But my point is: though the start-up costs of rolling out this method must have been high for Apple, spreading it to new designs may actually save money in the long run. Though Apple is no longer buying off-the-shelf structural parts, it's easier to revise a CNC specification than retool a production line based on molds and stamps. This could be how all Apple computers, even the low-end MacBook, will be made in the near future -- a rare example of a trickle-down theory that actually works.

Apple is now also stressing the environmental advantages of this method of construction. Check that video again and watch the execs talk about how all the metal shards left over from manufacturing are collected for recycling. No waste is always a good idea, as is getting Greenpeace to stop protesting your products.

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