Editorial: Cheap Plastic? It’s Called Engineering

I know…  Samsung started it, and this is just a spoof, but it’s time for me to put my two cents in on a slightly related note.  It’s time for a paradigm shift.  This goes for iPhone and Android fanboys alike.  Granted, I’m addressing a device issue that is a personal preference.  It comes down to how the device feels in the hand, or its sturdiness.  On top of that, there’s this common misunderstanding out there, and I’ve heard it, and may have thought it myself before, but it’s that things made of plastic are cheap.  Are they?  Maybe in some circumstances, it could be a shotty material selection for a specific application, but I want you to think of something: What are the material requirements for that part or device?  How strong does it need to be?  Is it possible to over-engineer something?  And does over-engineering matter?  I want to discuss this today, and hopefully, just maybe, help you think twice before thinking because something is made of plastic it’s automatically cheap and cutting corners.

The discussion of quality is always there when devices are examined and reviewed, and more than any other device manufacturer, Samsung takes the most flak when it comes to their phones.  Since the release of the Samsung Galaxy S III, it’s been under attack in regards to it’s material selection and construction.  Not only does it come from the consumers, but the manufacturers do a good job starting things too.  Early June, HTC pushed some promotional material for their HTC Once X  stating all the reasons why One X the  tops the Galaxy S III.  In this promotional material, HTC claims that the One X has better durability because it is polycarbonate, while the Galaxy S III is merely plastic.  Clearly an attack on the material selection and build quality of the device.

News flash HTC, polycarbonate is a plastic.  Granted, polycarbonate is an engineering plastic, with very high mechanical performance and toughness, but it’s obvious the writers of the promotional content know nothing about materials, or they’re willing to deceive people with their naivety.  Saying polycarbonate is more durable than plastic is like saying some tough guy is going to win in a fight against another human.  The facts aren’t there and the argument is stupid.  The whole promotional push was ridiculous to begin with, but it gets even more silly when Samsung releases an official statement about their material selection for their Galaxy S III back:

Polycarbonate is used on the battery cover. Polycarbonate is lightweight, solid and is already being widely used in the mobile industry. It was chosen as the best material to represent the minimal organic design of GALAXY S III. Using three layers of high quality, pure and clear polycarbonate, not only is the phone’s aesthetic elevated, but the durability and scratch resistance is maximized.

Now lets talk about polycarbonate real quick, and maybe why this plastic is being chosen for your mobile devices over metals or ceramics/glass.  If this was some cheap material, would machinists and technicians trust it to protect their eyes with their safety glasses?  If this was some cheap material, would the police and military be using it for riot shields?  Do you think fighter pilots would even leave the ground if they though their canopies were made of cheap material?  Monetarily speaking, polycarbonate isn’t the cheapest plastic out there.  You want to know what cheap plastic is?  The polyethylene used to make grocery bags, or the polystyrene used to make your plastic cutlery.  Those are cheap plastics.  No, when you’re using polycarbonate you’re not messing around.  This is a tough, strong polymer used to stop projectiles, and I guess used as phone backs to protect the internals of your phone.

A phone back: What are the purposes of the back of your phone?  Well, it needs to protect what’s inside. If the back is removable, it needs to be removable and replaceable hundreds or thousands of times without being ruined.  It needs to be durable when dropped and hopefully is also aesthetically pleasing to look at and handle.  Hopefully it doesn’t scratch too bad.  For the manufacturer, it would save costs if it was easily producible and easily assembled.  You know what plastic is really good for? It can be easily melted and formed into things; probably why a lot of you think plastic is cheap.  It makes manufacturing things much cheaper and easier than metals or ceramics. The Galaxy S III phone back is probably injection molded, and probably requires very little or no post processing such as machining to get it in the shape it’s in.  Have you heard what it takes to put together an iPhone?

Never before has this degree of fit and finish been applied to a phone. Take the glass inlays on the back of iPhone 5, for instance. During manufacturing, each iPhone 5 aluminum housing is photographed by two high-powered 29MP cameras. A machine then examines the images and compares them against 725 unique [ceramic glass] inlays to find the most precise match for every single iPhone.

Yeah, that sounds pretty cool, and you know what?  The glass will probably shatter if I drop it.  To me, that doesn’t fulfill the requirements for the back of a phone.  Yes, the iPhone is an exquisite piece of precision manufacturing and design, but that just sounds expensive.  The aluminum is unnecessary and unless it has a special coating, it’s probably pretty scratchable.  Aluminum is not a hard metal. And the glass, why would you add more glass to to something that will inevitably be dropped.  Yes there are covers, but that just covers up that beautiful iPhone back.  And maybe some of you are crazy safe with your iPhone, but that won’t protect it that one time when it does fall.  And then what if it does fall, repairs sound like a nightmare.  Impossible to do yourself because of the precision involved, and expensive for warranty/repair work.  It really sounds like a terrible game plan for Apple to me.  It looks good, but it’s poor engineering.  What about the HTC and Samsung devices?  Yes, the glass on HTC One X and the Galaxy S III screens may also break when dropped, but you know what won’t break?  The polycarbonate back.

To me, engineering is about coming up with the right design and using the right materials to do the best job.  So,  Cheap plastic? Yes, it’s probably cheaper than anodized 6000 series aluminum with glass inlays, but better for the job?  I would argue not.  I personally think the Galaxy S III is a beautiful device. And if Samsung’s build quality bugs you, I’d argue that the parts on the device are engineered to do what they need to, and probably allowing them to spend a little extra money other places to bring you a great device.  But now it’s your turn.  Do you wish HTC or Samsung could produce something as stunning as the iPhone 5?  Polycarbonate or not, do these plastic phone backs make you want to vomit?  Go ahead, rip me apart…  let us know your thoughts by commenting below.

P.S. About the video…  I put it there to demonstrate the unique material properties of polycarbonate versus other materials you may use on a daily basis.  The glass obviously isn’t gorilla glass, and the polycarbonate may or may not be a similar grade to what’s used with phones, but you should get the idea.

Resources: iPhone Design, PhoneArenaPriceBaba