If you’re interested in how things are made, stick to that (complex) name: CNC machine tools. Maybe it’s easier in English, where it’s called a CNC milling machine. Apple uses tens of thousands of these machines for the mass production of all of its products. It’s not the only company doing this, but it does it at a level of demand, hardware, and scalability that eludes other killer companies. This makes it impossible to copy their products and sell them on a large scale.

We mentioned them in passing when we talked about CES and prototypes a while ago. But now it’s time to take a closer look at these machines.

What is a CNC machine and why does Apple need one?

From the words Computer Numerical Control machine the acronym “CNC machine” was born. These machines use a variety of tools to shape a material. And they do it by following the digital plans generated with CAD software.

The choice of this type of machine is constrained by the needs of Apple. The company wants its products to be made from a particular material, aluminum, which can only be mass-produced on this type of equipment. Aluminum is the most appropriate alloy to obtain the precision, lightness, finesse and robustness that Apple seeks in its products. Other metals do not react in the same way.

In addition, the company works with a very demanding level of tolerances in materials. The finishes, shapes and yields are very high. In theory, a MacBook or iPhone could be created by casting, forging or stamping and correcting imperfections by machine. But the time cost would be too high.

We also didn’t mention the scalability needed for Apple’s operations. The company doesn’t need to make 1 iPhone or 1 MacBook, it needs millions. When launching a new generation of each product, manufacturing must deliver millions of units of demand in a short period of time. With the launch of an iPhone, Apple needs to have several million units ready in just a few days and maintain that pace for a few weeks.

This is the reason why the company uses these machines, because there is no other method that could make this possible.

Some of the CNC machines that Apple uses on its assembly lines

Fanuc, Brother and DMG Mori Seiki are three well-known suppliers of these machine tools. The first two are Japanese, while the third is of German origin. They all have decades of experience building these machines.

In this video we can see a Fanuc Robodrill. A kind of cabin where inside there is a mechanical arm with a milling machine at the end. In the upper model we can see how it has a tool exchanger that rotates them as needed and in a very short time.

CNC machine tools have a very wide price range. Home-type ones can cost around $5,000, while those used in the aerospace sector run into the millions per unit. In Apple’s case, each will likely cost between $500,000 and $1,000,000.

Of course, these are just one of the machines used in a small part of making the iPhone, Mac, Apple Watch, or iPad. Even as part of the Pro Display XDR. The full process can be seen in the video above, where the CNC machine only appears for a few seconds. The rest of the time, other machines complete the process.

A level of demand not worth copying

Apple has invested tens of millions of dollars to be where it is in terms of manufacturing, in a process that has grown over the past 20 years. Although it has partners such as Foxconn, Wistron or Pegatron to assemble its products, the company owns a large part of the necessary machinery. And among them are CNC machine tools.

Among the sector of manufacturers of this type of machine, Apple is one of the most important customers. Precisely because you need tens of thousands of units to reach the level of quality and quantity required for your products. It is a level of requirement that is not limited to milling and finishing, but extends to all hardware:

What happened when Apple wanted to use CNC machines to make unibody cases for millions of MacBooks a year? He bought 10,000 CNC machine tools to do it. What about when you wanted to laser drill holes in MacBook Pros to make the light appear idle, but there was only one company that could drill 20µm holes in the aluminum? He bought the company that made the machines and kept all the inventory. What about that time when you had to pack batteries in a tiny milled case, but no manufacturer was willing to make batteries that thin? Apple has manufactured its own battery cells. From zero.

As we said at the beginning, Apple is not the only company to use this type of equipment. But it’s the only one that does it at a level of quality and scale virtually unattainable for the rest of the competitors. It is a capability that is not only built with money, but also requires decades of experience. And that in recent times it has been besieged by the coronavirus, although production has increased and stabilized again.

Copying an iPhone and replicating its hardware (ignoring its software) in a single copy is relatively easy. But doing it in millions of units in a very short time is only within reach of Apple.