Apple Inc. is testing the use of 3D printers to produce the steel chassis used in some of its upcoming smartwatches, according to people familiar with the matter, heralding a major change in the way the company manufactures its products.
This technique eliminates the need to cut large pieces of metal into product shapes. According to people familiar with the matter, this will reduce the time it takes to manufacture the device, while also helping the environment by using less material. Anonymity was requested because the program is private.
The new approach has the potential to simplify Apple’s supply chain and spark a broader shift. If work on the Apple Watch models goes according to plan, the tech giant will seek to expand the process to more products over the next few years, the people said. A spokesman for the Cupertino, California-based company declined to comment.
Apple’s stainless-steel watches, which use more traditional manufacturing methods, have so far accounted for about 10 percent of the line’s total sales. The forging process is used to form blocks of material into smaller pieces of metal close to the dimensions of the equipment. A CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine is then used to cut the metal and create precise designs and buttonholes.
The new technology uses a 3D printing technique called binder jetting to create an overall outline of the device that is close to its actual size, or what is called “near-net shape” in manufacturing. Prints are made from a powdered substance and then go through a process called sintering. It uses heat and pressure to extrude material into shapes that feel like traditional steel. The precise design and cutouts are then milled as in the previous process.
The news gave 3D printing companies such as 3D Systems Corp. and Stratasys Ltd. a boost. Shares of 3D Systems soared 10%, while Stratasys gained 6.9%. The stock then gave back those gains. Apple shares rose 1.8 percent to $187.46 (roughly Rs 15,492) as of 2:48 pm in New York.
Apple and its suppliers have been quietly developing the technology for at least three years. For the past few months, they’ve been testing a steel case for the Apple Watch Series 9, which will be released on September 12. The smartwatch will get a performance boost and new case colors, but it will look different. It remained largely unchanged, according to Bloomberg.
There’s no guarantee that the first new steel Apple Watches to ship to consumers will be made using improved manufacturing techniques, but the test run shows that the company is serious about the approach. Apple also plans to apply the process to its titanium Ultra watch, but the switch isn’t planned until 2024.
The method is good for the environment because it uses only roughly the amount of metal needed to make a device’s housing. Apple is planning to replace leather with new materials in some new iPhone cases and other accessories, other people familiar with the matter said, in another move towards sustainability.
The 3D printing effort is led by Apple’s Design for Manufacturing team, which is overseen by corporate vice president Rob York and reports to operations chief Sabih Khan. The move to 3D printed cases is an expensive endeavor for Apple and its suppliers, but over time it should simplify production and potentially reduce costs. Currently, the cost per case with the new process is in line with the cost of the previous method.
This work is still in its infancy and will be reserved for small batches for the time being. Most Apple Watch cases are made of aluminum, not stainless steel. The company has yet to make progress in mass-producing 3D-printed cases using the material, which is also used in Macs and iPads, as well as low-end iPhones. But the company is discussing bringing 3D printable materials like steel and titanium to more devices.
The initiative is one of the first examples of binder jetting being used to mass-produce high-volume metal parts. It’s part of the company’s model to use the Apple Watch as a test case for new technology. For example, Apple added a steel frame to the iPhone two years after it appeared on the original Apple Watch. This year’s high-end iPhone models will come a year after the first use of titanium on the Apple Watch Ultra.
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