As curved glass enclosures emerge as a hallmark of Samsung’s latest smartphone designs, it was recently revealed this week that Apple has also expressed interest in the subject. If the Cupertino California company developed a safer and more cost-effective manufacturing process, it would allow the company to create thinner, higher-quality convex enclosures for devices as small as an iPhone but as large as a Thunderbolt display.
In a recent patent filing awarded to Apple this week, Apple notes that traditional “dropout” and “vacuum” processes for slumping or shaping glass over a convex mold during a heating process present a number of drawbacks due to the fixed alignment systems for which they rely. The current process includes the formation of “perimetrical flanges” on the edges of the glass that then need to be ground away, unintentional stretches or cracks in the glass that result from the rapid heating process, and the use of potentially harmful chemicals and gas.
Most of the dropout processes also involve heating the glass relatively rapidly, which has proven to be effective for molding relatively thick glass in excess of half an inch. The process can often prove detrimental to the quality of relatively thin glass, which can lead to lower yields and waste. Apple says these methods add unnecessary complexity, cost, time and labor to the glass shaping processes, as opposed to an alignment system that remains affixed to the material throughout the entire process. Using this method, the glass is free to bend around the mold without interference, a method that Apple says will allow it to produce higher quality, thinner convex glass more safely and cost effectively.
It’s still important to note that the advent of the filing, which is dubbed “Glass alignment for high temperature processes,” doesn’t indicate that we’ll see an iPhone hit the market with a screen similar to those found on Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S. It’s only an indication that Apple has explored the idea in earnest in the past. We previously saw Apple’s previous prototypes for the iPhone and iPad designs in the ongoing patent war with Samsung, where it was revealed that Apple had considered but decided against the similarities. It’s possible that the patent which was originally submitted in March of 2009 was filed during the design process of that prototype.
It is also alternatively possible that Apple may use it to leverage the patented process for curved glass on future products that have yet to come to light. An example, the company wrote in the filing that its technique is not only suitable for glass covers assembled in small form factor electronic devices but also in mobile phones and portable media players and even in user input devices such as mice, trackpads, personal digital assistants, remote controls, and glass displays for other relatively larger form factor electronic devices such as “portable computers, tablet computers, displays, monitors, and televisions.”
We’ll have to wait and see what Apple does with the patent going forward.