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Apple Files Multicolor 3D Printing Patent

Printhead options include an articulated arm for simultaneous printing and coloring.

Big Picture

On December 3, Apple filed a patent for full-color 3D printing technology, arousing speculation – as Apple patent filings tend to do – about the company’s plans to develop this technology. The patent attempts to address a current limitation of 3D printing, which is the reliance on tinted substrates to produce colorful outputs. However, as the patent points out, the need for pre-colored substrates limits both available materials that can be printed and the range our 3D-printer outputs, a process that is “expensive and impractical.”

Apple’s patent filing describes several potential fixes to this issue, which include a color application printhead with a nozzle that rotates 360 degrees, moving around another printhead to color the substrate. In other words, one printhead would deposit the substrate, while the other would deposit different colors, likely using paint, on printed output.

Another potential 3D printing technology included in the same patent is a similar setup with two printheads, except that the second printhead would be mounted on an articulated, movable arm, which would also accommodate rotating printhead nozzles. Two printhead controllers would coordinate movement to ensure that the heads do not interfere with one another.

In another version mentioned in the filing, printheads were mounted on a rotating platform. “Such an embodiment may involve printing a 3D object or at least some layers of the 3D object first by the printhead, moving the printhead out of the way, and then rotating the platform to locate the 3D object in a location accessible to the color application head which would then add color to the 3D object,” according to Apple authors.

The patent also discusses finishing, describing swapping out a printhead with a removable sanding tool, as well as discussing final intentions for a 3D printer by Apple: “Using this process, a 3D object which includes multiple colors can be created efficiency [sic]. This increases versatility of objects that can be printed by a 3D printer and extends the use to more everyday objects. For example, toys could be printed using such a printer at home. In one application, 3D models that include color can be sold by companies, enabling everyday consumers to create their own objects at home. For example, 3D models of toy characters can be made available for purchase by consumers.”

As with any patent, a filing does not necessarily predict a final product, as companies tend to patent technology in advance of plans to manufacture it.

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