The smartphone of the future: design comes first

Author : Nick Rimmer, Vice President of Product Management at P2i

06 August 2018

Consumer demand has driven life-proof phones, able to endure drops, bangs or the occasional splash. So, what does this mean for handset design of the future? This piece explains why the future looks bright – and how things are only going to get better for consumers, manufacturers and engineers alike.

Consumers get excited by new technology and features. They are constantly wanting more from their phones – across design, function and reliability. However, the more experimental features are, the higher the risk posed to handsets’ internal hardware. Internal components must be protected, whether from water damage, or everyday knocks and scrapes, to ensure the consumer can always remain connected. In our ‘always on’ society, users demand connectivity at their fingertips and don’t want to have to undergo the hassle of repairing a damaged handset.

Water-resistant design

While accidental splashes and spills can easily happen, IDC has found that liquid damage can cause substantial harm – it’s the second most common cause of handset damage, after shattered screens caused by dropping a handset. Consumers now expect options for well-designed, water-resistant smartphones to be readily available – but as it stands, water penetration is still responsible for more than a third of handset repairs.

Often, the mechanical gaskets and seals used to protect against liquid damage place limitations on the design of a phone. Alongside that, many smartphones are designed with USB-C connectors. With an increased pin density in comparison to existing USB ports, there is a significantly higher risk of a short circuit with liquid ingress. If a smartphone with an untreated circuit board is exposed to water, it is likely to result in instant damage, visibly corroding the internal components. For this reason alone, more manufacturers than ever before are turning to hydrophobic nano coating solutions to protect smartphones and achieve water-resistance, regardless of the other internal components used in the design.

The technology behind it

Nano coating differs from traditional water-proofing solutions and is applied through a low-pressure plasma deposition process: this coats the device inside and out with a nano scale polymer chemically bonded to the surface. Due to the low-surface energy of a hydrophobic coating, liquids simply roll off, making the components – and consequently the smartphone – water resistant. Whilst the nano coating can be applied at the end of a production cycle, manufacturers are increasingly integrating it at multiple stages of the production process.

As the coating is invisible, it can easily be applied to any component within the casing of the handset – such as the speaker or the microphone – without impacting the overall performance of the smartphone. Additionally, heat can freely escape through the invisible coating, which is another advantage over mechanical seals. Ultimately, nano coating enables greater design freedom for manufacturers than traditional components such as physical gaskets and seals.

Equality in coatings

Unfortunately, not all solution providers operate to the same high standards, meaning not all nano coatings are equal to each other. Let’s take the example of type-C USB connectors once again: as is standard practice, OEMs will typically use 2 to 4 suppliers for this type of component. Most components are of a suitable standard, but others may use lower grade materials, which can result in more regular component failures. This could mean that a device has a lower level of protection at its most vulnerable point. These problems lie within the connector itself and so cannot be rectified through the application of a nano coating.

The conductive surfaces of high quality USB-C components are made of gold, which does not corrode and hence will not require a nano coating.  It is only the adjacent non-gold components that require protection. USB connectors made using a lower grade of gold plate have been seen to corrode from the inside out due to residues and defects from the manufacturing process – problems such as this cannot be corrected using a nano coating.

 

Today, some providers are offering solutions to protect USB-C connectors that are little more than fool’s gold. To ensure reliable and consistent protection, manufacturers need to work with nano coating technology providers who are open and transparent about their products’ capabilities and offer clear consultancy on which component suppliers and materials they should be using.

Ever-evolving design

Design will always evolve, which means smartphone designers will need to get even smarter with their designs. In the future, not only will we see water-resistant smartphones, but also warning systems that alert consumers to liquid ingress within the handset.

Whether liquid detection indicators or humidity sensors and voltage regulators are integrated into design, these systems will detect and notify users at the first sign of liquid damage. Alerting them in real time will allow them to immediately dry out their phone, or make plans for a repair.

However, these warning systems are only possible when a device is protected by a hydrophobic coating, because once water has bypassed a physical seal onto an unprotected printed circuit board (PCB), the corrosion will start immediately.

Consumers are striving for aesthetically pleasing, functional smartphones. Durability, reliability and resilience are top of the tick-list – consumers want to know their devices can withstand day-to-day accidents. Nano coating technologies provide a way for OEMs to tick all of these boxes and create devices that will revolutionise the smartphone market. Also, this option keeps costs down for consumers when they buy their new mobile phone, by not significantly increasing the cost of manufacturing handsets.

Cost-effective handsets

There are a number of inexpensive solutions that provide strong ROI for manufacturers and can be placed at multiple product price points. A key benefit of the hydrophobic nano coating is that it is a mass market answer, making large segments of the smartphone market futureproof without compromising on innovative designs. The water-resistant qualities that this coating provides have the ability to protect internal components, achieving longevity – and ultimately, durability – for the consumer.

It’s clear that those within the smartphone market are moving towards greater innovation as a way to differentiate their products, in what is of course such a fast-moving market. Innovative design, functionality and features will be at the forefront when a consumer is flexing their purchasing power, and they are hungry for more of each.

Water resistance will surely be key element of a smartphone’s life-proof design, and this will continue to grow in importance in the future.


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