As a product designer, one of my favorite parts about any new Apple product launch is the inevitable "How it's made" video. The Mac Pro incarnation did not disappoint.
What makes Apple fascinating is not that they are using some wiz-bang alien technologies to make things - even here in Portland, Oregon, all the technologies Apple shows in this video are in-practice across numerous local factories. What makes Apple unique is that they perform their manufacturing with remarkable precision and on a scale that is simply astonishing, using techniques typically reserved for the aerospace or medical device industries.
The big story with the Mac Pro is deep draw stamping.
When uncle Phil said that Apple was using technologies that were new to them to make the Mac Pro, the brunt of his statement was focused on how the cylindrical case of the machine is formed. Here, Apple is using a process known as hydraulic deep draw stamping.
Most metal stampings go through one or two die tools to produce the final shape. With the Mac Pro though, the challenge is to produce a massive amount of plastic deformation without tearing, rippling or deforming the perfect cylindrical surface. To do this, the enclosure is drawn through a series of dies that progressively stretch the aluminum into something approaching the final shape of a Mac Pro.
Deep drawing is a process that very efficiently produces a "net shape" part. Apple could have just chucked a giant hunk of aluminum in a lathe and created the same part, but that amount of metal removal is extremely inefficient. Deep drawing efficiently creates a hunk of metal that is very close to the final shape of a Mac Pro in just a couple of operations. After that, the Mac Pro enclosure is lathe turned to clean up the surface and achieve desired tolerance, polished, placed back in a machining center to produce the I/O, power button and chamfer features and finally anodized.
The Small Parts
While Apple clearly wants to highlight the part responsible for the unique shape of the Mac Pro, many of the interesting manufacturing details are to be found in the various other small parts that make up the guts of the thing. Apple doesn't show us much of that process. For example, I would really love to know how Apple is manufacturing the Mac Pro's fan; as the complex curves and limited access make turbine manufacturing sort of the gold standard for complex part making (just Google any CAM/CNC machine company and the first video they will show off is some sort of turbine being made using their software or machine).
What we do get to see is the triangular core/cooling tower of the Mac Pro going through a neat automated bead blasting process.
What the Mac Pro video puts on display is Apple's unique talent for bringing together disparate manufacturing technologies to produce incredible precision at extremely high volumes. Sure, having $140B in the bank and the ability to bring a mind boggling number of zeros to a purchase order has its benefits, but plenty of resource rich product companies would never think of combining processes in the manner that Apple does routinely (see: injection molding, machining, polishing and coating an iPhone 5c case). With the Mac Pro, Apple has elevated a relatively low-precision/low-tolerance process (deep draw stamping) used to make my dog's water bowl and toilet brush canister into the creation of an aerospace grade piece of desktop jewelry.
I'm looking to buy 2!