No, You Can’t Manufacture That Like Apple Does

Startups can’t do things the same way big companies do. And that’s a good thing; here’s why.

There are no second chances in hardware.

At least once a week, I have a conversation with a founder that wants to design something that mimics an Apple product. Maybe it’s a surface with no ejector pin marks, or some complex texturing, or laser drilled holes, it doesn’t really matter: it’s impossible for a startup to do certain things. “But no,” they say, “Apple does it. Why can’t I?”

Apple is an exception to nearly every rule.

What happened when Apple wanted to CNC machine a million MacBook bodies a year? They bought 10k CNC machines to do it. How about when they wanted to laser drill holes in MacBook Pros for the sleep light but only one company made a machine that could drill those 20 µm holes in aluminum? It bought the company that made the machines and took all the inventory. And that time when they needed batteries to fit into a tiny machined housing but no manufacturer was willing to make batteries so thin? Apple made their own battery cells. From scratch.

CNC milling parts of the iPhone 7
  1. White plastic
    White is of course the most difficult color to mold. If you NEED to use white, never have two separately molded white-on-white parts. They will never be perfectly color matched.
  2. CNC machining at scale
    CNC machining is fantastic for prototypes and pretty awesome for high margin parts like hip implants and turbine blades. It is not for consumer devices. Figure out a way to cast your metal parts.
  3. Laser drilled holes
    Invisible laser drilled holes are far more difficult to make than it may seem. You can usually accomplish a similar look and feel without the complex secondary operation if you’re willing to sacrifice a bit.
  4. Molded plastic packaging
    Many small Apple products come in polycarbonate + ABS/PC mix molded packaging. This is both harder and more expensive than you might think. Recycled cardboard is your friend
  5. No ejector pin marks
    Unless you’re a billionaire genius, your product will have noticeable ejector pin marks. A good CM knows how to hide these well. Nearly zero CMs hide them as well as Apple does. Embrace it. Most consumers don’t know what the hell an ejector pin mark is anyways.
  6. 4-color, double-walled, matte boxes + HD foam inserts
    I know you’re going to do this anyways, but be aware that these kind of boxes will literally be the most expensive line item on your BOM. It’s not unusual for them to cost upwards of $12/unit at scale. And then they get thrown away.

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President and COO at Ten Percent Happier. Previously founded @BoltVC, EIR @EclipseVentures.

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Ben Einstein

President and COO at Ten Percent Happier. Previously founded @BoltVC, EIR @EclipseVentures.