One of the biggest (and most secretive) companies in the world is always going to court a vast amount of speculation. Yesterday saw the wires heat up following the application for a series of patents by Apple concerning the use of Liquidmetal technology; a couple of them referred directly to 3D printing applications.
This is likely significant in that it points to some serious R&D with proprietary 3D printing tech going on, as ever, behind the scenes; but the chances of this having high-street impact any time soon is about as likely as Apple announcing its plans to the world freely and openly. Furthermore, the patents were initially filed in 2012, according to the Patent office records. The patents revolve around a molten alloy material referred to in the patent application as bulk metallic glass (BMG) and a “solid layer-by-layer construction” process. Each patent application subsequently gets highly technical, but of particular note and pertinent here is Apple’s take on 3D printing, at the end of the document as linked above:
“3D printing can be quicker and less expensive than machining of prototype parts or production of cast or molded parts by conventional “hard” or “soft” tooling techniques, that can take from a few weeks to several months, depending on the complexity of the part.
3D printing may be useful in design-related fields for visualization, demonstration, and mechanical prototyping. It may also be useful for making patterns for molding processes. 3D printing techniques may be further useful, for example, in the fields of medicine and dentistry, where expected outcomes may be modeled prior to performing procedures. Other fields that may benefit from rapid prototyping technology include architectural designing, as well as others in which visualization of a design is useful.
One application of 3D printing is production of parts such as enclosures for consumer electronics. Parts for consumer electronics may have small sizes, tight constraints on their dimensions and complex shapes, which can make traditional subtractive manufacturing method difficult or expensive.
Another application of 3D printing is in the field of individualized consumer goods. For example, 3D printing can be used to create individualized interfaces to human body, such as customized ergonomic handles that fit each individual’s hands.”
It is paragraphs 3 and 4 of the quote above that are highly significant here — specifying production applications and the notion that Apple is wholly aware of the personalization potential of 3D printing for any or all of its product line.
Technically speaking, there are seemingly three BMG 3D printing processes being considered here — using BMG powder for sintering, sheets for cutting and molten droplets for deposition:
“In one embodiment, a layer of BMG powder is deposited to selected positions and then fused to a layer below by suitable methods such as laser heating or electron beam heating. The deposition and fusing are then repeated as need to construct the part layer by layer. One or more layers of non-BMG can be used as needed.”
“In one embodiment, layers of BMG can be cut from one or more sheets of BMG to desired shapes, stacked and fused to form the part.”
“In one embodiment, a continuous stream or discrete droplets of molten BMG is deposited to selected positions. The deposition can be repeated as needed layer by layer. One or more layers of non-BMG can be used as needed.”