Apple Watch to Use Mass 3D Printed Metal Parts from China’s Bright Laser Technologies

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Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo has updated the world on the state of Apple’s adoption of additive manufacturing (AM) technology. In a recent blog post discussing Series 10 form factor upgrades (larger screen sizes and thinner design), the analyst noted that, beginning in the second half of 2024, the Apple Watch will include 3D printed parts.

In 2023, it was rumored that the electronics giant was relying on laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) for titanium parts within the smart watch and binder jet aluminum for the case. According to Ming-Chi Kuo, Chinese LPBF leader Bright Laser Technologies (BLT) was involved in the testing of 3D printed parts in 2023 as a machine supplier. 3D printing the elements was said to improve the production efficiency for the watch significantly.

This year, however, the company is being described by the analyst as the manufacturer of the components themselves, highlighting a key difference between BLT and its LPBF competitors, such as EPlus3D and Farsoon. BLT is a vertically integrated business, making its own powders and operating China’s largest service bureau. As discussed in “The State of Chinese Additive Manufacturing: Market Opportunity Brief” from AM Research, an unnamed service provider is already making millions of small metal parts for an unnamed smartphone company, echoing BLT’s capabilities as a service bureau for the likes of the world’s biggest tech firm.

BLT intelligent factory. Image courtesy of BLT.

Also interesting to note is that 3D printing seemed to be leveraged as a bridge production technology for the Apple Watch in 2023 but will now be used for official mass manufacturing implementation. This reflects a key entry point for AM as a bridge production technology, underscored by Macro Analyst Matt Kremenetsky.

Ming-Chi Kuo said that, with 3D printed Apple Watch parts entering mass production in the second half of 2024, “BLT’s shipments of 3D-printed components are expected to continue to grow in the coming years, with the potential to produce Apple Watch cases (as the difficulty is lower compared to the cases of other Apple products).”

Still no further confirmation about the use of binder jetting, which is particularly relevant given the analyst’s mention of potential 3D printing of Apple Watch cases by BLT. Because there are many fewer binder jet systems manufacturers, it would be difficult to determine exactly who might be the chosen provider in that case. Our best guess last year was HP, which already has a relationship with Apple supplier Foxconn.

Altogether, this illustrates the complexity of the relationship between U.S. and Chinese supply chains. Despite the jingoism and rhetoric on both sides, the two countries are completely entangled economically. Therefore, if U.S. companies really are interested in “decoupling” (a phrase also used to describe separating carbon usage from modern societies), they will have to need to look into reshoring electronics manufacturing outside of the chips themselves. As seen in the AMR brief and this news regarding Apple, consumer electronics is an area where companies like BLT are devoting significant resources.

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