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Design Critique: Counterfeit Element Case – Sector 5 Carbon Fiber

After spending a couple of weeks with this case, dropping my phone once or twice, and piquing the curiosity of my work supervisor, I am happy to report that the design of the Sector 5 CF is nothing short of delightful. If you are willing to trade a small amount of comfort in the hand for a beautiful industrial design (aka: engineering pornography), you’ll probably appreciate what this case has to offer. But reviewing this case isn’t really the point of my blog post today, you can find dozens of reviews of this case all over the internet. As an engineer, I’m more interested in the manufacturing of my particular case and how it differs from that of a genuine Element case.


Let me just state now that it hadn’t been my intention of supporting counterfeiters in China when I purchased this case. I had (perhaps mistakenly) recalled Adam Savage throwing out a figure of around $60 for his Sector 5 case on a Tested.com video so I assumed that $40 on eBay couldn’t be too far-fetched.

I was perhaps a bit naive in thinking that reverse-engineering a multi-step machining operation on aluminum linkages would be too much of a hassle for Asian engineers who are typically better known for their injection molding wizardry. But considering that I’m making my own desktop CNC for personal use… for a factory to mass produce a complicated case like this wouldn’t take very much time or effort in the grand scheme of things. That being said, Mr. Chen (going by the name of the seller on eBay) did screw up on a couple of details with this case.


The first sign that something amiss was on the back cover of the box. No Chinese person ever gets spelling right. In my case, with my case, I apparently had a rather useful ‘kerchain’ hex wrench to aid in the installation process.


Then once you dig in, you notice that the packaging quality is a tad lacking. They clearly tried to match everything as much as possible, but they totally half-assed it.


All the accessories and bits you need to install the case are included.


But again, the level of quality was a step down from the real thing.


But no one really cares about the extraneous bits that come with the case. Is the case itself up to par? Well, the velvet-ish lining inside the case wasn’t adhered with as much care as I would have liked. This is a small thing where if the assembly line worker had taken maybe 30% more time to do their job they could have nailed it. But they were probably not being paid hourly, but instead by parts assembled.

Also, you can see a bit of chatter on the edge of the milled slot. The edges look slightly serrated. This could have easily been remedied with the correct feed rate, sharp end mill, etc.


In the milled pockets, you can see where the CNC program didn’t cleanly close it’s path. There’s a little extra material left hanging. If the programmers hadn’t cut corners and returned to the *exact* starting coordinates of each pocket, this could have been avoided. I would guess that Mr. Chen simply let some (probably pirated) CAM software create a tool path without manually checking and optimizing it.


Lastly, you can see that the ports on the bottom for headphones, USB, and speakers aren’t perfectly aligned with the features on the iPhone. It’s not really a problem unless you have unusually fat headphone plugs or are extremely OCD. I guess it never crossed Mr. Chen’s mind to use a pair of cheap calipers to double check his prototypes before entering mass production.

Overall, the counterfeiters who made my case got everything about 95% correct and probably could have gotten away with passing this off as genuine had they put in just a tiny bit more effort. As the end-user though, I don’t really notice the little faults. I hate to say this, but this case is essentially as good as the genuine product.

With the minor manufacturing fixes to the counterfeit case I touched on earlier, the Sector 5 CF could probably be economically produced at the $60 price point. Personally I could MAYBE justify spending up to $80 on this case, but not the three figures Element asks for (Sorry, guys).

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