A buddy of mine who lives in Shenzhen said that the best tech business to be in – the one that offers the most profit for the least amount of work – is soft goods, meaning cases, bags, and other paraphernalia. Don’t tell that to the guys at Element Case. Their amazing metal and wood iPhone cases take hours to build, months to design, and they look simply amazing.
For years I’ve been fascinated by this little Santa Clara, California company. They made and sold fairly expensive metal cases that hugged the edges of iPhones like an exoskeleton. They were rugged and, rather than simply adding some pretty colors and some rubber to your phone, actually changed the aesthetic to something a bit more interesting. Their latest case, the Ronin, is made of wood and nickel-plated metal and looks simply amazing on an iPhone 5. In a way it changes the phone completely, giving it a more organic edge. They also make cases for flagship Android phones.
I had the chance to tour the factory where Element makes most of its metal cases, a little outfit called K-Fab Inc.. Terence Tang, an Element Case product developer, took me from station to station and explained the Element magic. The company uses local CNC shops to build its cases and tries to find supplies that are made locally – locavore hardware, if you will.
The Ronin takes one hour from start to finish and requires a number of very specific steps and quality assurance tests that are performed to ensure the case fits snugly on the phone. Element used to machine its own parts until it got too big. Now it hires others to build parts to its specifications. Tang told me that they currently have a rabid fan base that buys every case as soon as it comes off the assembly line. That’s right – there are Element Case collectors.
It’s great to see how much handwork goes into building a fairly simple iPhone case. Because the Ronin uses wood, K-Fab fabricators have had to modify their procedures to ensure the hard, dark material doesn’t splinter or break.
Building cases is traditionally quite easy and quite lucrative. These guys made it hard and expensive – and they’re selling out of models almost daily. It’s great to see a small manufacturer take something that most people consider a commodity and turn it into a work of art.