Apple is testing a 3D-printer-based manufacturing process for some of its upcoming Apple Watches that could radically change how it manufactures products generally, a new report said Wednesday.
In testing, the company is using 3D printers for the stainless steel chassis of some wearables. It may prove more eco-friendly and economical, cutting down on materials needed.
Apple tests 3D printers in product manufacturing
Apple’s new tests of 3D printers in Apple Watch manufacturing could mean a whole new approach to making products, sources familiar with the matter said, according to a new Bloomberg report.
It follows rumors that 3D printing would figure into Apple Watch Ultra manufacturing. “My latest survey indicates that Apple is actively adopting 3D printing technology, and it’s expected that some of the titanium mechanical parts of the 2H23 new Apple Watch Ultra will be made by 3D printing,” analyst Ming-Chi Kuo said in a blog post at the time.
The new approach could streamline Apple’s supply chain if applied broadly. Bloomberg‘s report described it this way:
The technique would obviate the need to cut large slabs of metal into the product’s shape. That would reduce the time it takes to build devices while also helping the environment by using less material, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the plan is private.
Apple Watch tests could lead to more
Apple declined to comment, but sources said if the tests in the Apple Watch-manufacturing process go well, the iPhone maker may expand it to other products in the coming year.
For the wearables, the new process could replace traditional forging, which makes metal bricks sized to the eventual product. The bricks undergo further cutting and refinement.
The new 3D-printing process, known as binder jetting, achieves a similar goal through “sintering.” It uses heat and water to change a powdered substance into a steel-like material for further milling, the report said.
The process leads to the need for less metal in the manufacturing process — only the amount needed for the precise parts, like a hinge or a panel with cutouts. That can benefit the environment.
And that seems to pair well with recent rumors that Apple will switch from leather iPhone 15 cases to a more sustainable woven material. It may well include Apple Watch bands.
Could go into Apple Watch 9, titanium Ultra
The report noted Apple and suppliers started working on the 3D printing technique 3 years ago. The steel cases currently in testing could go into Apple Watch 9 sometime during its production run. But it won’t appear in early supplies, as the wearable is set for release September 12 along with the iPhone 15 series.
The new process could also figure into Apple Watch Ultra titanium models made in 2024. If and when the experiment scales up to broader production, it may lead to significant cost savings.
The report also noted it as part of a pattern for Apple:
The initiative is one of the first cases of using binder jetting to mass-produce a high-volume metal part. Making the Apple Watch a test case for new technology is part of a pattern for the company. For instance, Apple added steel frames to the iPhone two years after they appeared on the original Apple Watch. And this year’s high-end iPhones will use titanium a year after the material debuted on the Apple Watch Ultra.