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Apple is using metal binder jetting for Apple Watch 9 production

We think we know who could be making them but you may never guess it (it depends on the material and the location)

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Numerous reports, including one from Reuters, indicate that Apple is now testing metal binder jetting technology for serial production of the case of the Apple Watch Series 9, which is set to be unveiled on Sept. 12. The tech giant would be producing the cases in steel, since the aluminum material it currently uses cannot be 3D printed using binder jetting (since it cannot be proficiently sintered in a furnace). Some parts may also be produced in titanium. There are several candidates that could be providing the technology. Let’s see who, what, when, how, and, perhaps more importantly, where.

But let’s go in order.

A couple of months ago we reported that Apple was also testing metal L-PBF technology (which can process aluminum) using more affordable Chinese-made systems and materials, for various precision components of Apple Watch Ultra. The printer suppliers were identified as Farsoon and BLT. 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. Then again Apple may be looking at L-PBF just for the aluminum components.

Apple is using metal binder jetting for Apple Watch 9 production and we think we know who could be making them but you may never guess it
The X-Series system from Desktop Metal

With the watch cases, the reports indicate that Apple is willing to shift to using steel and titanium (which can already be proficiently 3D printed and sintered by binder jetting). The steel case would be for the standard Apple Watch Series 9 and the titanium case would be for the Ultra version which, however, is going to be released in 2024.

As the reports—which Apple spokespersons did not comment on—indicate that “Apple and its suppliers have been investing significant resources into industrializing the process over the past three years”, multiple speculations emerged as to which metal binder jetting company would be providing the hardware technology.

Apple is using metal binder jetting for Apple Watch 9 production and we think we know who could be making them but you may never guess it
HP’s Metal Jet sS100 3D Printing Solution

Multiple possibilities exist, depending on whether the Apple Watches will be eventually manufactured in the US or—as is the case now and is more likely—in Asia, specifically in China or Vietnam. Apple may even consider testing different configurations to see which one is more cost-effective. If the Apple Watches were to be manufactured in the US, the most likely candidates would be HP or Desktop Metal. Desktop Metal, especially via the X-Series systems it offers through its acquisition of ExOne, has a more consolidated technology and could offer an ideal solution for titanium cases (titanium is a tried and tested material for X-Series machines).

HP, on the other hand, has been focusing specifically on steel for its metal jet technology. Considering that Desktop Metal is currently involved in a complicated merger discussion with Stratasys, HP could be seen as a more reliable partner for the serial production of large batches of parts. The company has been developing a full production solution and working with large companies in the automotive segment (including GKN and Volkswagen) in order to industrialize production applications. in terms of geometry, the cases seem like a relatively easy part to 3D print and sinter.

Apple is using metal binder jetting for Apple Watch 9 production and we think we know who could be making them but you may never guess it
The new AMCELL Jet developed by Triditive and Foxconn

If Apple is going to rely on its partners in Asia, the company may be working with local metal binder jetting 3D printer manufacturers. EasyMFG, a Chinese 3D printer manufacturer, demonstrated smartwatch casings 3D printed in titanium using its binder jetting technology (shown in the image at the top of the page). The company says it is able to “create durable and robust titanium watch cases. The MBJ technology provides us with diverse design possibilities, allowing your watch cases to stand out. With MBJ-printed titanium watch cases, you can enjoy high-end quality and futuristic [designs]”.

Another very interesting possibility could come from the current Apple manufacturing partner in Asia, Foxconn. The giant contract manufacturing company has been working with Spanish startup Triditive on developing a metal binder jetting technology (which we saw firsthand at the TCT show in Birmingham earlier this year) since 2022. The mid-size metal binder jetting system, dubbed AMCELL Jet has been developed specifically to use a water-based binder for high-speed printing of metal parts, with support from the giant Foxconn, that is expected to be a major adopter. Foxconn said that it intends to use it for large-scale serial manufacturing of small and precise industrial components. That pretty much describes an Apple Watch case.

 

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites VoxelMatters.com and Replicatore.it, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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