In my personal life, I try not to engage in gossip because so much of it is speculative and not actually based on concrete evidence. But the tech world loves rumours to the creepy extent that there’s a website devoted just to anticipating what Apple’s next release will be. For competing companies, these rumours play a crucial role in determining how to make their technological plan of attack. For investors, it could mean making or breaking the bank. For spectators, it comes off as the idolatry of devices. For me, it’s a soap opera. So what’s the latest gossip about tech’s major players? Apple and Google might be getting into 3D printing.
The most recent rumours seem to be spurred from comments made by Trip Chowdhry, the Managing Director of Equity Research at Global Equities Research, to Benzinga. Benzinga relays: “He believes that Google is working on an all-in-one 3D printer project. The project could be announced in June or October, followed by an actual release in 12 to 18 months. As if that weren’t interesting enough, Chowdhry also thinks that Google started working on its all-in-one 3D printer after learning/predicting that Apple is about to enter the space.”
To his credit, Google has been dipping its toes into 3D water. The two major stories in this area are Google’s Project Tango and Project Ara. Project Tango, on the one hand, is an Android phone outfitted with 3D sensing technology, capable of scanning the phone-user’s environment in 3D. Project Ara, on the other hand, is a modular smartphone that will use 3D Systems 3D printing to produce customizable hardware components. Neither of these implies an actual 3D printer in development by the company, but they do indicate that Google is fully aware of the technology’s potential. Project Tango, in particular, may have been launched in anticipation of moves made by Apple.
Chowdhry says, “It’s either Apple or Microsoft [that inspired Google]. But developers feel that Apple is probably the focus for Google because Google considers Apple to be its prime competitor, not Microsoft. And Google really sees Apple to be a strong competitor, not Microsoft, because Microsoft has a lot of issues to worry about.” He adds, “Apple does have intellectual property [in that space],” said Chowdhry. “And they often have more expertise in hardware development than, say, Microsoft has.”
Chowdhry points to Apple’s acquisition of Primsense, the original developers of the Microsoft Kinect 3D scanner, as an indication that Apple is working on a 3D scanning and printing device. Apple has also filed patents for printing conductive ink onto 3D objects and a liquid metal printing technique. As Shane points out in his article on the latter, “Apple is wholly aware of the personalization potential of 3D printing for any or all of its product line.” But does this mean that the tech company is working on a 3D printer themselves?
Given HP’s teases about entering the 3DP space, the most recent of which, just this week, saw the company’s CEO, Meg Whitman, clarifying speculation and insisting they are only targeting the industrial sectors — not consumers — and the recent bombshell about Autodesk launching a 3D modelling and printing platform, it wouldn’t surprise me if Google, Apple, and your grandmother started making and selling 3D printers. 3D printing is an awesome technology already capable and potentially capable of doing awesome things. It would only make sense for big tech companies to get in on the action — people have been saying it for a while. As this is all just (un)educated guessing anyway, we would have to wonder how they would do it and what it would do for the industry.
Chowdhry uses the phrase “all-in-one”, which is somewhat elliptical. Based on Project Tango and the acquisition of Primesense, one feature would be 3D scanning. Both the liquid metal printing patent and Project Ara suggest the ability to 3D print metal, even electronic components. That would certainly be almost everything in one package, but seems too extraordinary to be possible at this point in time, since there are still so many other limitations 3D printers have yet to overcome. Google and Apple need to also deal with speed and refinement of existing 3D printing technology.
If Apple and/or Google did release 3D printers and they were good ones, the industry would probably change quickly. Apple would sell its sleek white boxes in their Apple stores and people would buy them and the industry would explode even further, right? And these are companies with two of the highest priced stocks on the market. They could buy and sell the largest companies in the 3D Printing Industry a few times over. What if they did? Next thing you know, 3DPI.tv could be sponsored by Apple and MakerBot would be a Google product. And we’d all have liquid metal printers that could fabricate almost anything we ever wanted. And everything would be scannable and faxable until we didn’t know where our asses ended and our heads began!
But, as I said, I try not to gossip too much, so I invite wild rumours and speculation in the comments section below.