Apple Invents a Specialized Carbon Fiber Keyboard for MacBooks that could eliminate the Butterfly Hinge Problem
In January Patently Apple posted a brief report about Lewis Hilsenteger of Unbox Therapy bashing Apple's MacBook Air for a hiccup problem with the "e" key. Then earlier this month Hilsenteger, a MacBook user for over a decade, announce that he was dumping his MacBook for good because of the endless problems he's been having with the keyboard. As crazy as his testimony was, I noted that with 13 million dedicated followers on his site, Apple should have had the courtesy of contacting Hilsenteger to resolve his keyboard problems, even if just for the sake of good PR. That didn't happen.
Then a couple of days ago TechCrunch posted a report about the MacBook's keyboard woes and the apology Apple offered to a notable writer at the Wall Street Journal who had a keyboard problem.
For a problem that Apple insists is a minor one, I find that the anger over it getting out into the blogosphere would suggest that it's a much larger problem. TechCrunch ended their report by stating:
"I will say that the latest keyboards are a step in the right direction for the company, but enough of the original problems continue to persist that Apple really ought to go back to the drawing board on this one."
A new patent application published by the US Patent & Trademark Office yesterday suggests that at least one team of Apple engineers are doing just that, rethinking the MacBook Keyboard from scratch that might be able to side-step the butterfly hinge that is causing problems.
Apple notes in their patent application that 'key webs' in laptops may provide structural rigidity to the overall device. For example, a key web may essentially define part of a top wall of a housing of a laptop computer, and as such may be a structural component of the housing. Accordingly, key webs with improved mechanical properties (e.g., strength, stiffness, toughness, etc.) may improve the mechanical properties of the overall housing.
So what is a 'Key Web'? Apple's patent FIG. 3B below illustrates a new key web they're working on. Apple's example is an exploded view of portions of a keyboard of an electronic device with a structural web.
Apple further notes that a structural web formed from a single continuous fiber material, such as a carbon fiber, provides several features.
Generally, a continuous fiber structural web may have reduced weight compared to a structural web made from conventional materials, such as aluminum, while maintaining equivalent or even increased strength.
While Apple's engineers dive deep into the make-up of a keyboard with continuous fiber carbon and list other advantages of switching to a continuous fiber material based keyboard, one particular paragraph stood out most as follows:
"In some cases, the flexible cover #324 (of FIG. 3B above) may provide sufficient support that no hinge mechanism (e.g., a scissor mechanism, a butterfly hinge) needs to be used to movably support a keycap."
So what could possibly replace the butterfly of scissor mechanisms? Apple presents their main solution in patent figure 14A as presented below and points to #1407 a new "spring member" that could replace other types of hinges (butterfly, scissor) if so desired.
Apple's patent FIGS. 14A to 14C above depict an example device #1400 (keyboard) in which mechanical functionality of a key is provided by features of a substrate that may be integrally formed with or attached to a structural web. The structural web #1402 may be formed of a carbon fiber material and may define a key opening #1406. The substrate #1404 may be formed of a carbon fiber material, and may be co-cured with or attached to the structural web
The substrate may define a spring member #1407. The spring member may be integrally formed with the substrate. For example, the substrate may be formed of carbon fiber, allowing detailed shapes, such as the spring member #1407, to be formed or molded directly into the substrate as part of the manufacturing process.
The spring member may provide various functions to a key of a keyboard. For example, the spring member may movably support a keycap #1410 and optionally provide tactile feedback such as a "click" or detent sensation when the keycap 1410 is actuated.
The spring members #1407, #1427 may be used to produce the tactile output, and may also provide a biasing force that returns the keycaps #1410, #1430 to unactuated positioned.
While the new system eliminates the need for a butterfly hinge, the engineers always fall back to say that a butterfly hinge could be used in certain designs.
Another advantage to this kind of continuous carbon fiber structured keyboard is illustrated in Apple's patent FIG. 15A below wherein the structural web #1502 may include light-transmissive fibers (or light sources) that can emit light #1506 to illuminate portions of the structural web.
In cases where the structural web is under another component, such as flexible key cover, light emitted by the integrated light-transmissive fibers may illuminate the overlying component. Illumination may be used for aesthetic and/or functional purposes, such as to illuminate glyphs or other input regions.
Lastly, like many Apple patents, the engineers list component options that Apple may consider in the future that are not binding. Below is FIG. 1 wherein the patent notes that the display may be LCD or OLED which is beginning to gain some traction in the market for premium laptops. Apple competitors HP, Dell and now Samsung announced at the MWC 2019 trade show that new notebooks with OLED displays will be coming to market this year.
The patent also notes that in one embodiment, the display #103 includes one or more sensors and is configured as a touch-sensitive (e.g., single-touch, multi-touch) and/or force-sensitive display to receive inputs from a user.
How that snuck into the patent filing without Phil Schiller ripping it out is a mystery. Schiller has made it crystal clear that Apple will never, ever provide users with a touch display on a MacBook, even if they want it. I guess Apple's engineers are a little more hopeful.
At the end of the day, there may be light at the end of the tunnel with a possible new keyboard design based on continuous carbon fiber that could technically eliminate the troubled butterfly hinge.
While I'd love to say that the solution is on the way shortly, we must never forget that patent filings don't mean instant products to market and guessing when such a design could come to market is not a science.
Yet with that said, at least it looks like Apple's engineers are attempting to deliver a work around design where traditional hinges may no longer matter and that's at least a good starting point.
Apple's patent application that was published yesterday by the U.S. Patent Office was originally filed back in Q3 2018.
One of the inventors of this patent is none other than MacBook Product Design Architect and Advanced Materials and Prototyping Lead Simon Lancaster.
About Making Comments on our Site: Patently Apple reserves the right to post, dismiss or edit any comments. Those using abusive language or negative behavior will result in being blacklisted on Disqus.