Apple is reportedly exploring the utilization of 3D printing technology to manufacture the steel chassis for its upcoming smartwatches, as shared by sources familiar with the matter. This potential shift marks a significant departure from the company’s conventional manufacturing methods and could have far-reaching implications for its product production processes.
The proposed technique aims to eliminate the need for cutting large metal slabs into the desired product shape. This shift would not only expedite the device assembly process but also promote environmental sustainability by reducing material consumption. The individuals, who preferred to remain anonymous due to the confidential nature of the plan, have disclosed this development.
If the new approach proves successful with the Apple Watch models, it could lead to broader implementation across the company’s product line over the next few years. However, Apple has not provided official comments on this matter.
Previously, Apple adhered to a conventional manufacturing process for its stainless-steel watches, which constitutes around 10 percent of its product range. Forging was the technique used, involving the formation of material blocks into a smaller metal block closely resembling the device’s size. Subsequently, a computer numerical control (CNC) machine was employed to carve the metal, creating the device’s precise design and button holes.
The innovative method employs a variant of 3D printing termed “binder jetting” to generate a preliminary outline of the device at nearly its actual size, known as the “near net shape.” The printed form is composed of powdered material, which is then subjected to sintering, a process utilizing heat and pressure to mold the material into a steel-like consistency. Subsequent steps involve milling the design and cutouts, paralleling the earlier process.
The news influenced the stock prices of 3D printing companies like 3D Systems Corp. and Stratasys Ltd., with shares of 3D Systems surging up to 10 percent and Stratasys rising by 6.9 percent, although the gains were later moderated. Apple’s stock also experienced an increase of 1.8 percent to $187.46 (approximately Rs. 15,492) as of 2:48 pm in New York.
Apple and its partners have reportedly been working on perfecting this technique for about three years. In recent months, trials have been conducted on the method using steel cases designated for the upcoming Apple Watch Series 9, anticipated to debut on September 12. Although the smartwatch will receive performance enhancements and new case colors, its overall appearance will remain largely unchanged.
While there is no assurance that the initial consumer shipments of the new steel Apple Watches will exclusively adopt the revamped manufacturing approach, the ongoing testing suggests Apple’s commitment to exploring this avenue. The company also intends to apply this method to its titanium Ultra watch, with the transition expected around 2024.
This innovative technique not only benefits the environment by utilizing only the necessary amount of metal for device enclosures but also aligns with Apple’s broader sustainability efforts. The company is contemplating using alternative materials to replace leather in certain iPhone cases and accessories.
The implementation of 3D printing is being spearheaded by Apple’s manufacturing design team, headed by Rob York, a vice president within the company, and overseen by operations head Sabih Khan. Although transitioning to 3D-printed watch cases has incurred initial expenses, it is projected to streamline production and potentially reduce costs over time. Presently, the cost per watch case using the new process is comparable to the earlier method.
However, this initiative is still in its infancy and currently targets lower-volume products. The majority of Apple Watch casings are composed of aluminum, not stainless steel. The company has yet to make headway in mass-producing 3D-printed enclosures using aluminum, a material employed in Macs, iPads, and entry-level iPhones. Nevertheless, Apple is deliberating the integration of 3D-printable materials, such as steel and titanium, into more devices.
This endeavor is noteworthy as it marks one of the initial instances of employing binder jetting to mass-produce high-volume metal components. The Apple Watch’s role as a testing ground for innovative technologies is consistent with the company’s approach. For instance, steel frames were introduced to iPhones two years after their inclusion in the original Apple Watch. Similarly, this year’s premium iPhone models will feature titanium, a year after its debut in the Apple Watch Ultra.