The High Price of Metal

The decline in the price and size of computers and other electronic devices continues year after year, but that doesn’t mean it happens easily. The trend toward greater efficiency can continue only because engineers take a fresh look at product designs and come up with new ideas every year. Some of the next price cuts in computers, CD players, mixers, and similar devices are likely to come from a reduced use of metal.

You wouldn’t think of metal as the expensive part of something; as a raw material, its value can be measured in cents. But the precision manufacturing that creates the cables and connectors used in digital, audio, and video devices does have a significant price, often on the order of a dollar per component. Designers can look for ways to save money by using less expensive connectors and cables, and this can already be seen in the decline of SCSI, one of the most expensive connection standards used in computers.

SCSI makes high-speed connections between computers and hard disk drives. But a SCSI cable uses a large number of wires, so a connection, including the cable and connectors, can cost $30 or more. With the price of low-end hard disks already below $75, SCSI is too much to pay to make the connection, and it has mostly been replaced by less expensive standards, such as IDE, USB, and FireWire.

This year, even the tiny ribbon connectors inside a device have become candidates for elimination. Hitachi and other hard drive manufacturers are working on much smaller hard disk designs, with disks about the size of a coin. Engineers believe a disk this small could be mechanically stable enough to be mounted directly on a circuit board. Soldering a computer’s hard disk drive directly to the motherboard would eliminate both the drive bay and the ribbon connection from the drive to the motherboard. It would also eliminate some of the labor that is involved in assembling a computer.

Similar changes are driving down the prices of digital mixers; by limiting the number of analog inputs and outputs, a digital mixer with signal processing can now cost less than an analog mixer with separate signal processing devices. Similarly, a combined telephone and answering machine now costs much less than making a telephone and answering machine as separate devices.

Engineers look for changes like these to make things smaller and cheaper. Inside a current computer, the largest single component you’ll see is the CD or DVD drive. Surely within the decade, these 12-centimeter disk formats must also give way to something smaller so that the prices and sizes of computers and disk players can continue to fall.

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