Parts in the New Apple Watch Ultra to Reportedly be 3D Printed

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According to a Medium post by financial analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who covers Apple for Hong Kong investment bank TF International, the next version of the Apple Watch Ultra will feature some mechanical titanium parts produced using additive manufacturing (AM). Kuo expects the second-generation Apple Watch Ultra to launch sometime before the end of 2023, following the product’s initial release in September, 2022.

Kuo typically gets his data, including the intel regarding the 3D printed parts, from “his contacts in Apple’s Asian supply chain”, according to the online publication MacRumors. That website also notes that Kuo’s “[predictions] are accurate enough to make him one of the most reliable sources for Apple rumors.” Kuo named three companies that will be used by the world’s largest corporation in its AM operations for Apple Watch Ultra parts: IPG Photonics is supplying the laser components, while Chinese original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) Farsoon and Xi’an Bright Laser Technologies (BLT) are providing the platforms.

Image from Apple’s smart manufacturing hub in South Korea

The fact that Apple is using Chinese platforms, in particular, is especially interesting, given that the company has been perhaps the most oft-cited corporation in the last couple of years as an example of Western companies diversifying their manufacturing operations out of mainland China. The use of Chinese AM platforms in this case would highlight something I’ve mentioned frequently in the past few months, in the context of “de-risking” related to China: the emergence of distributed supply chains could allow the world’s largest manufacturers to limit the growth of physical economic connections by substituting them with digital connectivity.

While the use of Chinese hardware would still of course require shipment of printers, Farsoon and BLT already have customers around the planet, with Farsoon having both American and European offices in addition to its Hunan headquarters. BLT, moreover, just recently signed a deal to sell its products in Japan, which could similarly fit the concept of spreading out the manufacturing footprint of Western companies more evenly across Southeast Asia.

In any case, shipping printers should, in the long run, lead to much less global traffic than perpetuating the supply chains necessary to ship millions of tiny consumer goods across opposite ends of the planet. As Kuo writes in his Medium post, “If shipments go well, I believe more Apple products will adopt 3D printing technology, which will help improve production cost and ESG performance in Apple’s supply chain…”

The first-generation Apple Watch Ultra

Things could start to turn heavily in that direction very quickly, as, less than a month ago, Apple held its first “Smart Manufacturing Forum” for small and medium enterprises in South Korea. In addition to South Korea, India could also eventually be a major beneficiary of any 3D printing-driven smart manufacturing strategy. Apple is eager to ramp up its India operations, even amid news last week that Foxconn — the main manufacturer of Apple products — had pulled out of a nearly $20 billion semiconductor factory in Gujarat. Despite that, Foxconn is still planning on going forward with other new factory sites in India.

Above all, I think this sends a clear signal that diversification out of China is much more about supply chain flexibility than it is about imperialistic grandstanding. It is by no means a cut-and-dry issue with a one-size fits all solution that can be ushered in sweepingly, but a generational project that will require myriad approaches tailored to individual cases: a project which can only be built up bit by bit by precisely the interests responsible for supergluing the US and China together in the first place.

Images courtesy of Apple

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