OEM Report: Electronics
Tuesday | 15 March, 2011 | 4:31 am

Attractive aluminum

Written by By Lauren Duensing

February 2011-The continuous buzz that surrounds the consumer electronics industry shows no signs of abating. At the International CES, Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, Arlington, Va., noted in his opening keynote, "We predict the U.S. consumer electronics industry to grow 3.5 percent next year to $186 billion."

Projections from the CEA point out consumers will continue to go wild for all types of electronic devices, including Internet-connected televisions, tablet computers, smart appliances and electric vehicles.

Add in the global data and the projections for the industry get even bigger. Research and Markets, Dublin, an international market research and data firm, recently released its "Global Consumer Electronics Market Forecast to 2013" report. The company pointed out in a press release that "the global consumer electronics industry will grow at a [compound annual growth rate] of around 5 percent during 2010-2013," driven by sales in the United States and European Union.

Modern market, streamlined aesthetic
The next generation of electronics will contribute to these rising global numbers. The hot product this year is tablet computers, fueled by the success of the iPad. At the 2011 International CES, electronics manufacturers launched more than 80 tablet computers. According to Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn., an information technology research and advisory company, media tablets are poised for strong growth worldwide. The company forecasts sales to total 54.8 million units in 2011, a number that's up 181 percent from 2010, and surpass total sales of 208 million units in 2014.

Consumers desire tablet computers because they look modern, and a major component of the modern aesthetic is aluminum. Alcoa, Pittsburgh, the world's leading producer of primary aluminum, fabricated aluminum and alumina, forecasts a major shift to aluminum through a 30 percent increase in aluminum content in laptops and a 465 percent increase in LCD TV aluminum back-panel growth by 2013.

"OEMs are seeing a number of different benefits that come from working with aluminum," says Kevin Lowery, director of corporate communications for Alcoa. "It is replacing other materials, and it is allowing consumer electronics to meet demand. [OEMs] are looking for products to be more lightweight so they can become more portable, and the attributes and benefits of aluminum make that possible. Aluminum is lightweight yet strong, so if you want to make something portable and lightweight, aluminum makes sense."

Aluminum gives electronic products a sleek look and a substantial industrial feel. Often, manufacturers tout thinner, lighter, more portable products.

For example, Zagg Inc., Salt Lake City, a producer, designer and distributor of electronics accessories, received an International CES Innovations 2011 Design and Engineering Award for the Zaggmate, an aluminum iPad cover made of aircraft-grade aluminum with a bead-blasted anodized finish that matches the iPad. Robert G. Pederson II, president and CEO of Zagg, said in a press release that his customers are "going to love the sleek and streamlined look of the Zaggmate, which perfectly complements the iPad." He pointed out that the product provides a keyboard, flexible stand, and scratch and shock protection all in a thin, portable package.

In addition, Samsung Electronics America Inc., a subsidiary of Samsung Electronics Corp., introduced the 9 Series light laptop at the International CES. The product is constructed from Duralumin, an aluminum alloy that helps keep the laptop's weight under 3 pounds.

Samsung chose this material because it is a "strong, reliable and lightweight material normally used in advanced aircraft. Therefore, we strongly believed Duralumin would be a wonderful material to use for a premium laptop, though there were several challenges to overcome--most notably the complex manufacturing process as a result of it being such a strong material. As Duralumin hasn't been used for commercial laptops previously, we also had to undergo an intensive testing process until we were happy with the final feel and coloring of the material," the company notes.

"There has been a real trend lately to create stylish laptops, with products sometimes focusing too much on the style over the substance--a trapping we were keen to avoid with the 9 Series," the company continues. "The central concept of the 9 Series lies in the idea of the flowing arch. Looking at the sleek and slim side of the 9 Series, you can find a natural flow which was styled to add an aerodynamic feel to the product."

Turn the heat down
Although aesthetics are one of the most important factor for consumers, electronics made with aluminum also have a variety of other benefits, including being highly recyclable. "[Electronics] tend to be a fashion item," Lowery says. "Consumers get a new cell phone, a new hand-held device or a new TV every so often. They're looking for the newest capabilities. As that happens, elements are going in to recycling strings, and we want to make sure that they're actually getting recycled."

He points out aluminum is more likely to be recycled because the infrastructure already exists and it is high value. "The value of the aluminum material is something that people want."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 80 percent of electronic waste in the United States ends up in landfills, and only 18 percent is recycled. The Aluminum Association, Arlington, Va., adds that a significant amount of landfill volume is from plastic cases of electronic products. The association pointed out in a press release, "Aluminum casings are fashionable, durable and--most of all--infinitely recyclable. Outdated aluminum cases can be infinitely recycled without losing any functional properties, enabling engineers to create new shapes, colors and styles to satisfy consumers' constantly changing needs."

The CEA recently released its 2010 Sustainability Report, an update to its first report on sustainability, which it released in 2008. The results showed that electronics manufacturers are producing greener designs with products that use less material and packaging, focusing on energy-efficient products and increasing the amount of products recycled.

"The consumer electronics industry is committed to greening its products and practices for the benefit of consumers, communities and the overall environment," said Shapiro in a press release. "In the past three years, we've made great strides in our environmental efforts by creating more green products, improving energy efficiency and deepening our commitment to electronics recycling."

In addition, aluminum's thermal management capabilities provide both environmental and safety benefits.

"For the most part, laptops today don't get put on laps because they get hot," Lowery says. "Most people have had that experience where they put their laptop on their lap, and it's hot, so they remove it. When they are made out of aluminum, the aluminum helps dissipate the heat and provides other thermal management capabilities."

He also says the thermal management capabilities of aluminum will be a major component for big-screen televisions because today's large TVs are no longer behemoths that need equally huge entertainment units to support them.

"Today, people are actually developing and designing LCD TVs that hang right on the wall, and a lot of the back panels are converting from steel to aluminum. First, you have the lightweight aspect; you don't want to hang something on your wall and have it be so heavy that it is going to rip right out of the wall. The second is the thermal management aspect. You can't have the back of your TV getting too hot when you hang it on the wall; otherwise, you're going to cause a fire."

As aluminum use continues to increase in the electronics arena, Lowery says manufacturers of the metal cannot only focus on a business-to-business marketing strategy.

"As we go to market, what we do is understand the marketplace as a whole," he says. "We also have to understand what our customers' customers want. Then, we ultimately go and understand what the end consumer is looking for. One of the big drivers, and this is probably the core of a lot of the growth we see in consumer electronics over the next couple of years, is sustainability. What makes aluminum significantly different from any other material is its recycleability. More and more OEMs are designing their electronic materials so they can be more easily recycled. It's an issue for the industry, and they're all looking for ways to address it." MM

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