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Global consumer electronics company Apple Inc. is reportedly using metal 3D printing technology from Chinese 3D printer manufacturers Farsoon Technologies and Bright Laser Technologies (BLT) to produce key components for its new smartwatches.
Recent reports indicate that the US-based technology giant is actively adopting 3D printing technology, with the company said to be testing the use of binder jet systems for the production of stainless-steel chassis for its upcoming Apple Watch products.
Moreover, during Formnext + PM South China 2023, China-based binder jet 3D printer manufacturer EasyMFG demonstrated smartwatch casings 3D printed in 316L stainless steel using its binder jetting technology. This serves to further highlight the growing adoption of metal 3D printing for the production of smartwatches.
The implications of these developments could be significant for the 3D printing industry, potentially accelerating the use of additive manufacturing for serial and mass production of consumer goods.
3D printing Apple Watches
Traditionally, Apple has employed conventional manufacturing methods to produce its stainless-steel watches, which make up approximately 10% of the product line’s total units. The company uses forging to convert bricks of material into smaller metal blocks closer to the device’s size. CNC machining is then used to create the exact design of the watch casing.
Back in July, TF International Securities analyst Ming Chi-Kuo reported that Apple is actively adopting 3D printing technology. At the time, Chi-Kuo outlined his expectation that some of the titanium mechanical parts of the new Apple Watch Ultra will be manufactured using metal 3D printing. According to Chi-Kuo, Farsoon and BLT are supplying the 3D printers, while industrial laser systems specialist IPG Photonics is exclusively supplying the laser components.
A recent Bloomberg publication has backed up these findings, pointing to the production of Apple Watch casings using metal 3D printing technology. According to the report, metal binder jetting is being used to 3D print the devices as close to their actual size as possible, or their “near net shape.” 3D printed in stainless steel, the parts are then milled in the post processing stage.
Apple is said to have been developing this technique for the last three years, and has been testing the process with steel cases earmarked for the upcoming Apple Watch Series 9. It is not clear whether the first consumer shipments of the new steel Apple Watches will be 3D printed, but Apple reportedly has plans to apply additive manufacturing for its titanium Ultra watch in 2024.
Despite these developments, 3D printing is expected to be reserved for lower-volume products within Apple’s manufacturing workflow. Indeed, most Apple Watch casings, as well as other devices such as Macs, iPads and some iPhones, are made out of aluminum. Apple is yet to make significant strides in 3D printing with aluminum, and is expected to focus its efforts on materials such as steel and titanium.
EasyMFG 3D printed smartwatch casings
Away from Apple, EasyMFG’s binder jetting technology is also being leveraged to manufacture smartwatch casings.
EasyMFG is based in Wuhan, China. Founded in 2013 by a university professor, the company launched its first metal binder jetting system in 2018. The current metal 3D printer is EasyMFG’s third-generation system. The company has customers in Singapore, Hong Kong, India, Russia and Ukraine.
This week at Formnext South China in Shenzhen, the company has 316 stainless steel 3D printed smartwatch cases on display. This metal binder jetting process requires multiple steps, 3D printing, debinding and sintering in a furnace. The 3D printed parts undergo 18-20% shrinkage after they have been sintered, according to EasyMFG.
The smartwatch parts are also possible in other materials, including titanium. Other alloys that can be 3D printed include copper and tungsten.
The EasyMFG metal binder jetting 3D printer is available for just over $100k.
EasyMFG says the customer has not been disclosed.
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Featured image shows 3D printed smartwatch casings produced using EasyMFG’s binder jetting system at Formnext + PM South China 2023. Image by 3D Printing Industry.