Recently Apple has been granted a patent for a color 3D printing idea whereby the printed object is first made and then colored in afterwards. This idea is a straightforward one; using it one could print an object using FDM for example and then later color it with an inkjet print head. This method would play to both technologies’ strengths with FDM making for strong objects that are very dimensionally accurate but often suffer from poor surface quality. By having a separate print head then color in and, more importantly perhaps, strengthen and smooth over the object as well as add things such as conductivity, the resulting object would look nice as well. This could be a potential breakthrough in expanding 3D printing.
Having said that, this is a rather obvious idea which has been discussed in the community for years now. Let’s also not forget that XYZprinting launched in 2017 a hybrid 3D printing process that does exactly that. XYZprinting’s 3D colorjet technology was launched in September of 2017 and images of the printer as well as sample parts were widely available. Apple’s patent was filed in 2014 and granted on January 18th of this year. So that will be interesting.
The patent was generated by one very senior engineering and one very senior software manager at Apple. It is not Apple’s first 3D printing patent, however. The Alignment of images and objects patent granted in 2017 is broad and primarily seems to patent printing on top of existing objects using images as an input. This builds on and augments other patents such as this one granted in 2013 which is similar. This patent seems to point to the blended use of AR and 3D printing together. Apple holds a patent to use laser cladding to 3D print in metals for surface treatments. Another Apple patent has them using bulk glasses to 3D print. With another patent, Apple has apparently developed 3D printied magnets using Selective Laser Sintering and Stereolithography (powder bed fusion and vat polymerization).
The cost of doing business
Apple obtains several thousand patents a year and may have over 25,000 patents worldwide. A major cost component of your cell phone is the licensing and cross-licensing of patents as well as the royalties on patents based on the numerous things in your cell phone. Estimates vary, but perhaps around 25% of the cost of a phone could be royalties from patents. For a $229 billion revenue a year company where 54% of that revenue comes from the iPhone currently there are a lot of incentives to acquire more patents. Apple has billions of reasons each year to develop more patents where it can. Apple is an insanely large company, and it sits at a place where many technologies will interact; having an arsenal of patents to defend itself in any possible future is essential to it. So most probably this is just a bunch of guys at the head office working hard to generate patents for any number of possible worlds Apple may find itself in. Samsung, IBM and many other companies have 3D printing IP. It is not a question of this meaning that the company will want to do something in 3D printing but rather that it wants to have the option to. So in and of themselves, these patents mean nothing.
Apple uses 3D printing widely in prototyping
Apple uses 3D printing extensively in prototyping. The company has extensive prototyping capability in metals and polymers. If one looks closely at job openings for these prototyping jobs, then one gets the distinct impression that what they are doing is iteratively improving and printing out each newer version of their designs using metal 3D printing and plastic 3D printing technologies. The secretive company has periodically let people take a peek at its 3D printing use but has not disclosed all. Given that Apple is so deeply engaged in the total experience of its hardware and iterating its designs we can assume that the company has built up significant expertise in 3D printing for prototyping by now.
Apple is probably using 3D printing in manufacturing at scale
I’m almost certain that Apple has turned to contract manufacturer Lite On to use Optomec’s Aerosol Jet 3D Printing technology to make tens of millions of iPhone antennas. I’m quite sure as well that the company has turned to 3D printing for production run metal parts in cases of restrained supply. 3D printing, under the radar, is used to solve a number of high volume manufacturing challenges. This usually occurs at sensitive times or in embarrassing situations for firms, so it is often not disclosed. I’m also certain that for particular applications Apple is drawn to and using 3D printing in its supply chain at scale especially if we look at patents around parts such as these wear-resistant plugs that may use metal 3D printing. This Apple patent looks at combining vat polymerization (SLA, DLP) 3D printing with metal parts to make end-use parts.
Apple uses a lot of milling for phone and MacBook cases. Innovations such as 3D polishing and the unibody all rely on a high volume series of small batch processes conducted at high tolerances for billions of devices so far. It would be very tempting for the company to look at 3D printing for all or a significant portion of its manufacturing. Whereas everyone else seems to instantly assume that Apple may be working on a consumer desktop 3D printer I find the idea that they’re using 3D printing at scale in manufacturing very exciting as well. Few companies make as many things as Apple does. If we look at this patent to correct things on the fly using additive and subtractive processes, for example, my blood starts flowing faster. Essentially the patent looks at a way through which an automated quality control system could measure surfaces and then if they are out of the required tolerance could then on the fly adjust them either by adding or subtracting material. This would point to them considering using 3D printing in quality control in manufacturing millions of items. That to me is a super exciting idea and may prove to be very useful.
A 3D FutureApple makes over $28 billion a year from App Store revenue alone. That’s double our entire industry’s revenue. The future of Fitbit and fart apps means more to Apple than 3D printing. Apart from using 3D printing in manufacturing and perhaps considering a desktop 3D printer at some point in the future there are more important fish to fry. Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft are in a race for access to your brain. These companies come from very different markets but are all now engaged in mobile phones and other devices that are going to put a store in your pocket or living room. The music labels, film studios and book publishers of the future, as well as the artists that work with them, will probably be dependent on these companies in the future. Essentially they each in their own way want to be a tax on content or to put it in another way have direct access to the most significant proportion of your day that they can have. There is value in being the conduit to your purchases, entertainment and idle time. The world’s billions of lazy eyeballs seek entertainment and light from screens, and a few key firms could control that.
Simultaneously we can see major investments in 3D scanners, AR and VR happening. Phones are coming with 3D scanners, as are cars. Microsoft paid $2.5 billion to get their hands on Minecraft so they could be a way through which people can create. Microsoft, the company behind Visio, Dynamics and Sharepoint, has spent billions on Xbox and repeatedly made multiple billion dollar failed attempts to become a significant mobile phone OEM. The creation and interpretation of the physical world around us through 3D images is becoming important for navigation, self-driving cars and AI. Self-driving cars themselves are an instance of several tech companies spending billions on making cars drive themselves so that then we all have many more hours we can spend on Google or our iPhones. That in and of itself shows you the insane amount of money that our collective attention can generate. To define the future, movie studios will have to be bought or created, Spotify will find a new home or grow by itself, Netflix is an $8 billion revenue company already, and games publishers are immense. In each area, the content companies will have to decide to partner with or replace a part of the value chain. This is going to be insanely expensive. Five years from now Amazon is planning to spend $8 billion a year on original content for movies and TV shows. The battle for the future of information is being fought at this moment. And this titanic battle is so vast that any mistakes will be costly.
Where we will be heading is that some subscriptions will let us access much content everywhere through devices which make additional subscription revenue for the seller of those devices. Every other company is making stuff, but Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft have a subscription button at your fingertips feeding your mind new information. The gold rush of the future is not for gold, palladium, electric cars or anything. The world’s most valuable asset, the most lucrative business opportunity on the planet, is boredom. It’s your free time that they’re after.
One element of that free time will be to in a VR or AR way create and mass customize unique things. Barbie clothes, headphones, hats, shoes, art, music, movies and all there is to own could be measured, created and customized by you in your living room. Just by waving your hands you could compose a song or a set of gloves could be generated that would be an exact fit. What would be the value of being the default customization and creation tool for everyone? The one tool that would make sure that your Amazon shirts would fit you or that that blouse would look nice? I’m not sure but a lot. If that same tool was also the way through which we would watch films, listen to music, do Skype, do WhatsApp and generally interface with the world then the value would be considerable. This is the bigger game and we are but a tiny bit of that. 3D printers can be used to customize and make unique items. Tantalizingly they could also print out many things at home which would bypass Amazon’s infrastructure. We are still only able to make around 2% of things well, however, so, for now, it is early days. Apple has more than enough cash to acquire our entire industry or to develop its own space program and compete at every level of our industry but it does not at this stage need to do this.
Of course, Apple wants 3D printing patents to give it the option of entering the market at one point. It already has patents and is using 3D printing to make its products. A much more critical thing for Apple and its competitors is that 3D printing could play a role in letting it help people create, customize and make things at home in the future as part of an integrated creation and entertainment tool. Many tools could do this however and the battle now rages for control over access to us; the manufacturing tools are, at the moment, an afterthought.
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