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Apple Explores 3D Printing for Smartwatch Chassis Production

by Rahil M
0 comment

The new technique employs a form of 3D printing known as binder jetting.

Apple Inc. is reportedly exploring the use of 3D printing technology to manufacture steel chassis for its upcoming smartwatches, marking a significant shift in the company’s production methods. Sources familiar with the matter reveal that this new technique could eliminate the need to cut large metal pieces into the desired shape, thereby reducing both production time and material waste. The sources, who preferred to remain anonymous due to the confidential nature of the plan, suggest that this approach could have positive environmental implications by utilizing fewer raw materials.

The potential benefits of this method extend beyond the current project. If successful, Apple could extend the 3D printing technique to other products over the next few years, streamlining its supply chain and potentially revolutionizing its manufacturing processes. While Apple declined to comment on these claims, the impact of this innovative manufacturing method could be substantial.

Traditionally, Apple has employed a more conventional approach to crafting stainless-steel watches, which constitute around 10% of its overall product line. This approach involves forging, where material blocks are formed into smaller metal blocks close to the device’s size. Subsequently, a computer numerical control (CNC) machine is used to cut the metal into the final design and create button holes.

In contrast, the new technique employs a form of 3D printing known as binder jetting. This method creates a near-net shape of the device’s outline using powdered material, followed by a process called sintering that utilizes heat and pressure to transform the material into a steel-like substance. The final design and cutouts are then milled using a process similar to the conventional method.

The news of Apple’s venture into 3D printing had a positive effect on ripple companies like 3D Systems Corp. and Stratasys Ltd., with their stock prices experiencing a temporary surge. Meanwhile, Apple’s stock price also saw a modest increase, demonstrating the market’s interest in this new direction.

Sources reveal that Apple and its suppliers have been working on perfecting this 3D printing technique for over three years. Recent months have seen them testing the process with steel cases intended for the forthcoming Apple Watch Series 9, anticipated to be unveiled on September 12. Although it’s uncertain whether the initial consumer shipments of the new steel Apple Watches will utilize this manufacturing technique, the testing phase indicates Apple’s serious commitment to this approach. Furthermore, Apple intends to apply the 3D printing process to its titanium Ultra watch, with plans set for 2024.

Aside from its manufacturing benefits, this approach aligns with Apple’s environmental goals by minimizing material waste. The company is also considering introducing new materials to replace leather in some of its iPhone cases and accessories, reinforcing its sustainability initiatives.

The endeavor is spearheaded by Apple’s manufacturing design team, overseen by company vice president Rob York and reporting to operations head Sabih Khan. While adopting 3D-printed watch cases has incurred initial expense for Apple and its suppliers, it’s expected to simplify production processes and potentially lower costs in the long run. For now, the cost per watch case using this new approach remains comparable to the prior method.

However, it’s important to note that this work is in its early stages and is currently reserved for lower-volume products. Most Apple Watch casings are made from aluminum rather than stainless steel. Although Apple has yet to achieve mass production of 3D-printed aluminum enclosures, discussions are ongoing about expanding the use of 3D-printable materials like steel and titanium to more devices.

This initiative marks one of the first instances of employing binder jetting for high-volume metal part production. Apple’s decision to test new technology on the Apple Watch is consistent with its track record of innovation. Notably, the company introduced steel frames to iPhones two years after their debut on the original Apple Watch, and this year’s premium iPhones will incorporate titanium, a material that first appeared on the Apple Watch Ultra.

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