Apple is a pretty innovative company. It has revolutionized the music and phone industries, is arguably the most important company to release a smart watch so far, and is even quite likely working on a car.
That, however, is not where things end, and one of the markets that Apple seems to be secretively looking into is 3D printing.
The news comes from the patent published by the US Patent and Trademark Office, describing what Apple calls “Method and apparatus for three dimensional printing of colored objects.” In other words, a 3D printer that is capable of printing 3D structures that have more than one color. A printer built for this purpose wouldn’t be the first of its kind, however other offerings are more positioned as professional prototyping tools rather than something the average person can afford. In fact, even the cheaper multicolored 3D printers cost as much as a standard car.
According to the patents, Apple’s system is based on modern tech, and is able to build 3D objects by depositing thin layers of a material, usually a type of plastic, onto a platform, with a digital file determine what colors needs to be placed, where, and when. Most 3D printers heat up PLA or ABS through a nozzle that is motorized and connected to support bars that can slide the nozzle from side to side, and front to back.
Despite the fact that there are some multicolor 3D printers out there, most are limited to one color. It is possible to change the filaments in 3D printers, however its not the most efficient process and will often result in lower quality prints.
According to Apple’s patent, it wants to use two print heads, one that is able to deposit the material, and the other that applies color to the printed material. In some versions of the printer, the color head is parallel with the material head and they are both connected to the same support bar. In any case, the color head applies color while the material printer is printing the liquid plastic onto a platform that can be moved, helping when it comes to Y-axis movement.
A different method of 3D printing described in the document would involve a special nozzle that can rotate 360 degrees around the print head, enabling both of the two heads to be active at the same time. In this case the device would also use a mechanical arm to aid in the printing process, boosting the efficiency of the printer.
Apple also shows off alternative coloring processes, including an option to sand off or finish a 3D object before the color is applied.
Obviously this patent really doesn’t say much other than the fact that Apple or certain Apple employees have looked at 3D printing technology at some point. This is not at all an indicator that Apple is planning on releasing a 3D printer to the public. In fact, it would be somewhat difficult to imagine the company release a 3D printer at all. What is possible, however, is that the company could be looking at building a 3D printer for its own prototyping, choosing to build a printer from scratch rather than buying one that might not specifically suit its needs.
What’s most likely, however, is that Apple saw an increase in buzz surrounding 3D printers, dabbled a little in designing one, filed some patents, and that’s the end of things. I personally would be very surprised if these patents ever saw the light of day, although it would be interesting.
That’s, of course, not to say that we definitely won’t see an Apple 3D printer. Apple has obviously dabbled in device accessories more and more as time goes on. It has manufactured mice and keyboards for its computers for year and most recently refreshed those devices and made the Apple Pencil, a stylus for the iPad Pro, along with the Smart Keyboard, a keyboard for the iPad Pro. Printing, however, would take things to the next level, especially 3D printing, which tends to be expensive and inaccessible to the average person.
Only time will tell if Apple actually enters the 3D printing market. In the meantime, we can only look at the patents to see what an Apple 3D printer might look like.