Apple’s new Lightning connector system, featured on the recently launched iPhone 5 and iPad mini, has given the international Metal Injection Moulding (MIM) industry a substantial boost thanks to its use of this advanced manufacturing process. The use of MIM in the Lightning connector has resulted in a surge in demand for MIM grade powders and a drive to install additio nal component manufacturing capacity.
It was stated at a Special Interest Seminar on Powder Injection Molding at the PM2012 World Congress, Yokohama, Japan, 14-18 October, that production of the Lightning connector parts was running at 5 million parts per month, whilst other MIM components for the iPhone amount to more than 10 million parts per month, with large number of workers required to achieve the required level of surface finish and necessary tolerances.
It is understood that production is being met by primary Apple suppliers in Taiwan, some of whom have large MIM operations in China. Additional manufacturers in China are also reported to be engaged to help meet capacity.
Industry sources state that Apple has specified a single MIM feedstock supplier for the production of the Lightning dock components, a move that can be seen as a way of ensuring feedstock quality and consistency when using a number of different component manufacturers. It is also understood that a preferred supplier has been specified for the furnaces used to debind and sinter the parts.
With Apple announcing that five million units of the iPhone 5 were sold on the product’s launch weekend, and some analysts projecting that up to 200 million units could be sold over the next year, it is clear that demand for MIM components for Apple’s new generation range of connectors, to be used with all new Apple mobile devices, is set to rocket.
The use of MIM in mobile phones is not new, with numerous keys, buttons and vibrators manufactured in large quantities by the Asian MIM industry for a diverse range of end-users. This new application in the Lightning connector is, however, one of the most important developments in terms of production volumes.
In 2006 Advanced Materials Technologies Pte Ltd, Singapore, won a Metal Powder Industries Federation (MPIF) award for a series of MIM parts for Motorola’s clamshell designed PEBL mobile phone. Ceramic Injection Molding (CIM) is also finding applications in this sector, particularly in the luxury market, with Dutch CIM producer Formatec Technical Ceramics B.V manufacturing black zirconia cover pieces for high-end Vertu mobile phones.
All key MIM grade powder suppliers have announced capacity increases over the last 12 months in anticipation of continuing industry growth.
What’s the appeal of MIM technology?
The Powder Injection Molding (PIM) industry, which includes both metal (MIM) and ceramic (CIM) components, is currently estimated to generate sales of US$1.5 billion, with an annual growth rate of 15-20%.
Powder Injection Moulding, which was first developed in the 1970s and commercialised in the 1980s, is regarded as an ideal process for the manufacture of small, high volume precision components and the technology has for many years been an essential manufacturing process for the telecommunications sector.
With the use of multi-cavity tooling, which can often have 16 or even 32 cavities for some micro-sized components, and continuous debinding and sintering systems, a MIM facility is ideally suited to the high volume production of small precision components.
Want to know more about MIM?
Discover our 14 page Introduction to Powder Injection Moulding section to find out more about the process steps for PIM.