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Apple and Honor to use metal 3D printing for production of next gen devices

Both will be produced in China and both will use Chinese metal 3D printing technology. What are the implications of this new trend?

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Ming Chi-Kuo, an analyst at TF International Securities, recently reported that – according to his latest survey – Apple is actively adopting 3D printing technology. He thus expects that some of the titanium mechanical parts of the 2H23 new Apple Watch Ultra will be made by 3D printing. Although currently the mechanical parts made by 3D printing still have to go through the CNC process for back-end processes, he believes that AM can still improve the production time and reduce the production cost.

In terms of the supply chain for 3D printers used to produce mechanical parts for the Apple Watch Ultra, IPG Photonics is the exclusive supplier of laser components, and the printer suppliers are Farsoon and BLT. If shipments go well, Kuo believes more Apple products will adopt 3D printing technology, which will help improve production cost and ESG performance in Apple’s supply chain, and the above-mentioned suppliers will also benefit from this new production trend.

A BLT AM factory.

The components could include the Digital Crown, Side Button, and Action Button, as these are the only mechanical parts of the ‌Apple Watch Ultra‌. These are the titanium parts that are currently CNC machined. The change has the potential to improve production time and reduce costs.

While this is just an unconfirmed deduction, the real news here is confirmation that Apple uses 3D printing technology from BLT and Farsoon. There is no confirmation that the company will actually produce the Apple Watch Ultra parts but that is very likely, especially in light of the fact one of its Chinese competitors in the mobile device segment, Honor, just accurately detailed its own – very real and very clear – strategy, to implementing metal AM for mass production of the new Magic V2 foldable smartphone.

Apple and Honor to use metal 3D printing for production of next gen devices using Chinese technology. What are the implications?

According to Siemens VP of Additive Manufacturing Karsten Heuser, who first reported about the Honor project in Western media via a LinkedIn post “The Honor Magic V2, achieves a thickness of just 9.9 mm in its folded state by designing a titanium hinge to be produced with & by 3Dprinting. According to the announcements, using AM made it 62% lighter and reduce the number of hinge parts from 92 parts to only 4. Strength is also improved due to tailored titanium alloy vs traditionally machined steel and aluminum parts

Honor also said that at least about 2 of the 4 parts are being printed, while for the other parts, they will use 3Dprinted molds for a single casting process with finer structure might or the parts might be 3D printed as well. Hanbang 3D (HBD) said that the hinge with its cover was developed based on their technology. Other Chinese AM companies are involved as well.

Heuser finally points out that “While many in the European AM industry still explain that only low volume production would be addressable by AM, these examples clearly show the path towards high volume advanced manufacturing with AM. Especially the European metal L-PBF machine companies, being pioneers in AM, need to be alerted by these developments.”

Apple and Honor to use metal 3D printing for production of next gen devices using Chinese technology. What are the implications?

If the Apple rumor is confirmed, and the Honor project follows through (along with commercial success for the new smartphone product, this will usher in a new era in terms of using AM for serial and even mass production. We have argued here that really small (and really large) parts currently represent key USPs for additive manufacturing (along with complex geometries and subassemblies) because there is just no alternative method of production. It is likely that the products of the future will increasingly make use of AM in production simply because there is no other way.

This is something that the entire AM industry already knows and that most adopting companies are starting to discover (with medical and aerospace leading the way, especially in the west). However, scaling use of AM for serial production – which was hailed as a means to “reshore manufacturing” – is now being led by Asian and especially Chinese companies where manufacturing already happens. Western companies made huge proclaims but in the end they have failed so far to aggressively implement strong AM-based production strategies, mostly because they simply did not make the required investments.

One of the Carbon DLS production facilities at OECHSLER.

There are some exceptions: companies like OECHSLER in polymers and Oerlikon in metals are going through huge efforts to develop effective and efficient AM mass production lines. Siemens as well, especially after the recent announcement of the over $1 billion investment to digitalize manufacturing and implement manufacturing at its plant in Erlangen. Many space companies are finally aggressively implementing AM (sometimes much later than they should have). But these companies, as large as they are, cannot nearly suffice.

As market analysts and specialized another major challenge we are seeing in the West is that adopting companies don’t want to openly discuss their AM strategies. There are two/three reasons why companies don’t want to disclose their AM strategies. The first is that they want to preserve a hypothetical competitive advantage (as if competing companies are not aware that AM exists). The second is that they sometimes see AM (or 3D printing) as a hyped-up term that would diminish the value of their products and thus don’t want to be associated with it. Finally, sometimes the larger companies just don’t consider AM and AM media as much as they should. They look for generalist media coverage but generalist media don’t have a sufficient understanding of the complexities AM to be able to treat this topic accurately.

A total of 11 Farsoon’s 403P and Flight 403P systems installed at Service bureau WeNext. Image courtesy: WeNext

In China, this is very different. While Chinese companies don’t make significant media investments in the West they certainly do so in the domestic market. Even without investing, most Chinese companies (once you get through the language and geographic barrier) are extremely open about their use of additive manufacturing. They are eager to share sales information and VoxelMatters has been collecting all this information in its growing database. The companies mentioned in this article (BLT, Farsoon, HBD), along with dozens of other companies active in metal, polymer and ceramic AM, are ready to scale, supported by Chinese adopters. Their technology has evolved rapidly, just like Chinese smartphone (and EV) technology is evolving rapidly. The two things actually go hand in hand. Will the traditional Western AM market leaders also focus on growing the industry or will they remain confined to small-batch high-value applications and M&A activities?

Consumer Products AM 2024

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