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The future is foldable

How Lenovo solved design challenges to build a new breed of laptop

The future is foldable
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Earlier this year, Lenovo unveiled the X1 Fold, the first PC with a folding touchscreen. The kind of big-picture innovation needed to turn a daunting design challenge into reality didn’t come easy. It took Lenovo’s design team many rounds of prototypes and four painstaking years of testing, failing, rinsing, and repeating.

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At this year’s Fast Company Innovation Festival, a panel discussion presented by Lenovo described the twists and turns of this journey and reflected on the mysterious and maddening process of creating new technology from scratch. (Hint: potato chips are necessary. Lots of potato chips.)

It’s well-suited for the hybrid workplace

Work looks different these days—due in large part to the widespread work-from-home mandates caused by COVID-19. No more powering down your bulky office desktop to beat rush-hour traffic home. With more and more blending of remote and in-person work, employees rely on the same device to crank out a spreadsheet, punch up a report, or look up a recipe. In the new workplace, mobility is king.

For Kevin Beck, senior story technologist at Lenovo’s PC and Smart Devices Group, the goal was not simply to create a foldable device but, rather, “to have something that actually brought new and more productive ways of working.”

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The X1 Fold team dedicated four years to the motto “carry small but use big.” They focused on removing screen size as a design constraint for a portable, small-footprint device that still packs plenty of functionality. The X1 Fold can serve as a tablet, a small laptop, or even a full-performance everyday PC. “It really transforms throughout the day,” said Jerry Paradise, vice president of Lenovo’s Commercial Portfolio and Product Management group.

Starting from scratch

Pioneering a new form factor also meant the X1 Fold team had no prior devices on which to model their design. As they worked on the foldable design, Beck said the engineers pored over many different types of hinges—including hardbound books, cabinets, pianos, doors, and suspension bridges, adding that the frame and hinge system went through six major iterations.

Beyond technical expertise and elbow grease, this innovation also involved stepping back and creating a whole new creative process. For example, the team struggled to figure out the complex cooling system and how to efficiently transfer heat within the device’s small footprint. They found inspiration in the design of an intricate Japanese puzzle box. “The intricate structure of how it fit together in manufacturing is very reminiscent of the pattern in parts of these boxes,” Beck explained.

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A never-ending puzzle

Developing the X1 Fold wasn’t just about figuring out a folding screen; each resolved challenge led to a raft of others. The display frame was one such head-scratcher: The team had to ensure the sensitive OLED screen remained flat when the device was unfolded without being damaged. The solution was a special lightweight frame and carbon fiber layer the team invented specifically for this model. “The overwhelming majority of everything in the X1 Fold had to be invented specifically for it,” Beck said. “From the top to the bottom, from the bezel to the screen, to the carbon fiber that we use.”

The design process was complicated, as not only did the team have to come up with a perfect prototype for the X1 Fold, but it also needed to create a product that could be replicated thousands of times over. “There were setbacks along the way,” Beck said “But these were necessary steps along the journey to get the product right.”

Built to withstand brute force—and snack food

Lenovo’s ThinkPad lineup is known for its rugged durability. Devices are subjected to thorough durability tests before they earn the ThinkPad name. For X1 Fold, the team had to invent new durability tests, such as the ball-drop test, in which a heavy steel ball is dropped from more than 30 inches onto the display of the device.

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“There was a fantastic sigh of relief [and] a lot of high-fiving,” Paradise said after the X1 Fold passed the ball-drop tests. “Making sure that the X1 Fold held up to all of the rigors of a ThinkPad was probably our biggest challenge.”

But the X1 Fold also was subjected to additional tests to confirm its portable design would hold up to the rigors of daily life. Beck recalled that the test team dropped coins and crunched-up potato chips into the device’s fold to make sure it could withstand the abuse. “Knowing that this was going to go in places that normal PCs and notebooks didn’t ever go, they came up with a lot of very interesting tests,” he said.

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Click here to watch this panel from the Fast Company Innovation Festival.

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