How Apple use CNC machining to develop their products

They may be struggling to hold onto their crown as the world’s most valuable company, but Apple can still legitimately claim to be one of the most admired when it comes to design. What is often overlooked, however, is just how brilliant they are at manufacturing.

The range of hardware Apple designs is as diverse as it is impressive. There are tablets, laptops, desktop computers, watches, internal components, chargers and – if rumours are to be believed – a forthcoming motor vehicle. Every single piece of tech they sell has to be designed, prototyped and road tested before making it to market.

Among the Cupertino company’s greatest assets are the tools they have available during the design and prototyping processes. In particular, they rely heavily on Computer Numerical Control machines, or more easily referred to as ’CNC machines’.

What is a CNC machine?

It is probably easier at this juncture to consider the CNC machining process itself. In its simplest form, it is a process used by manufacturing firms which involves the use of computer-controlled machine tools. CNC machines can come in a variety of forms – most notably injection-moulding machines, drills, lathes and mills. They usually work from digital blueprints produced by computer-aided design (CAD) software.

How does Apple use CNC machines?

If you’ve got an Apple device to hand (so many people throughout the world have, after all), pick it up and see how it feels in your hands. It’ll feel comfortable, well-made and entirely designed for its intended use. That device was once just a mould, and one of countless prototypes. It was the lucky one that got through, but Apple wouldn’t be able to conduct a beauty parade of alternatives if it wasn’t for their use of CNC machines.

One of the best examples of CNC machining in action is the fabrication of the unibody MacBook ‘skeleton’. This ingenious piece of engineering allows all of the internal components to be housed within one piece of aluminium, resulting in a structural rigidity users benefit from in day-to-day use.

It all starts with an extruded block of aluminium. The raw metal is selected for its brilliant strength to weight ratio and is cut into blocks that are treated to thirteen separate milling operations. Apple then uses CNC machines to precision cut the intricate holes for the keyboard and the simple but effective ‘thumb scoop’ located in the lid, which makes opening the laptop possible with the smallest of fingers. Even the tiny perforated speaker holes are machined by the CNC process.

Perhaps most impressive is the laptop’s power indicator which demonstrates just how precise and visually impressive CNC machined objects can be. On the front edge of certain MacBook models a section of aluminium is milled thin enough for a laser to micro-perforate the metal. This allows the power LED indicator to pass through the metal and, when the machine is turned off and the LED dormant, the metal appears to be solid. Genius engineering at work!

All power to Apple for going back to the core of manufacturing!