Apple is reportedly delving into the realm of 3D printing technology to revolutionize its manufacturing processes, with an aim to produce the steel chassis for its forthcoming smartwatch models, according to knowledgeable sources. This potential transition signals a significant departure from the company’s traditional production methods, potentially reshaping its entire supply chain.
The proposed method holds promise for expediting device assembly while concurrently mitigating environmental impact by curbing material consumption, insiders revealed. The insiders, who preferred to remain anonymous due to the confidentiality of the plan, shared that the technique could eliminate the necessity of carving hefty metal slabs into the desired shape for the product.
Should Apple succeed in integrating 3D printing into its smartwatch lineup, the technology powerhouse envisages extending this paradigm shift across multiple product lines within the next several years, the sources disclosed. When approached for comment, a spokesperson from the Cupertino-based firm declined to offer any insights.
Hitherto, Apple has adhered to a more conventional methodology for crafting its stainless-steel watches, accounting for approximately 10% of the product range. This procedure entails forging large material blocks into smaller metal pieces, followed by precise cutting using computer numerical control (CNC) machines to achieve the intended design and perforations.
The novel technique capitalizes on binder jetting, a variant of 3D printing, to forge the general outline of the device close to its final dimensions, a technique colloquially known as “near net shape” in the manufacturing arena. The procedure employs a powdered substance, later subjected to sintering—a process involving heat and pressure to mold the material into a traditional steel-like texture. The subsequent stages entail milling to finalize the design and apertures, mirroring aspects of the previous approach.
The groundbreaking development sent ripples across the 3D printing sector, buoying companies like 3D Systems Corp. and Stratasys Ltd. Shares of 3D Systems spiked by as much as 10%, while Stratasys witnessed a 6.9% surge, although these gains moderated subsequently. Apple’s stock rose by 1.8% to reach $187.46 at 2:48 p.m. in New York.
In a covert collaborative effort spanning over three years, Apple and its partners have stealthily been perfecting this innovative technique. Recent months have seen rigorous testing of the process on steel cases destined for the impending Apple Watch Series 9, slated for unveiling on September 12. Although modest enhancements are anticipated in terms of performance and colors, the overall design remains consistent, according to credible reports.
While the incorporation of the revamped manufacturing technique into the initial shipments of the new steel Apple Watches remains uncertain, the ongoing trial run underscores Apple’s earnest intent to embrace this innovative approach. Further integration is envisaged, including the application of this methodology to the titanium Ultra watch, though this shift is earmarked for 2024.
Environmental conservation remains a pivotal incentive for this transition, as the approach employs only the requisite quantity of metal to fashion device enclosures. In another stride towards sustainability, Apple is considering substituting leather with novel materials in select iPhone cases and accessories, according to individuals acquainted with the matter.
At the helm of the 3D printing initiative is Apple’s manufacturing design team, under the supervision of Vice President Rob York and Operations Head Sabih Khan. This transition incurs significant expenses for both Apple and its suppliers, but the potential for simplifying production processes and eventual cost reductions remain motivating factors. Currently, the cost per watch case using this novel approach remains commensurate with the traditional method.
While still in its embryonic phase, this methodology will be initially confined to products with lower production volumes. Most Apple Watch casings consist of aluminum, with mass production of 3D-printed aluminum enclosures and other devices under consideration for the future.
Apple’s decision to make the Apple Watch a proving ground for 3D printing underscores a consistent pattern of leveraging new technology. A case in point is the introduction of steel frames to iPhones two years after their debut on the original Apple Watch. This year’s premium iPhones will follow a similar trajectory, incorporating titanium a year subsequent to its introduction in the Apple Watch Ultra.