Apple has been granted a patent (number 9,776,364) for a 3D printing system that that includes a 3D printer — and 3D glasses should Apple ever enter that market.
In the patent filing, Apple notes that manufacturing based 3D printing is a promising and emerging technology for printing and creating a 3D or 2D real (i.e. physical and tangible) object of any shape. It involves making a 3D solid object of virtually any shape from a virtual model.
3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. For example, to perform a print, the 3D printer reads the design from a file and lays down successive layers of liquid, powder, paper or sheet material to build the model from a series of cross sections. These layers, which correspond to the virtual cross sections from the virtual model, are joined or automatically fused to create the final shape. The primary advantage of this technique is its ability to create almost any three-dimensional shape or geometric feature.
The virtual model represents the geometrical shape of the real object to be built or printed. The virtual model could be any digital model or data that describes geometrical shape property, such as a computer-aided design (CAD) model or an animation model. The printed real object is tangible. The object or the part of the object may have a void or hollow in it, such as has a vase. The object or the part of the object may be rigid or resilient, for example.
3D printers are commonly based on additive manufacturing that creates successive layers in order to fabricate 3D real objects. Each lay could be created according to a horizontal cross-section of a model of a real object to be printed. 3D printers are typically used to create new physical objects that do not exist before.
However, as Apple notes, there’s a challenge in 3D printing applications as to where to place the existing object or how to adjust one or more print heads of the printer such that the additional objects will be printed onto a desired area of the surface of the existing object in order to build a composed object satisfying a pre-determined alignment between the additional objects and the existing object. The company thinks it has the answer.
And what of those 3D glasses? Apple says that an overlay of a computer-generated image and the real object could be seen by users via an optical see-through display having semi-transparent glasses. The user then sees through the semi-transparent glasses the real object augmented with the computer-generated image blended in in the glasses. The overlay of the computer-generated image and the real object can also be seen by the users in a video see-though display having a camera and a normal display device. The real object is captured by the camera and the overlay is shown in the display to the users. The overlay of the computer-generated image and the real object may also be realized by using a projector to project the computer computer-generated image onto the real object.
Here’s Apple’s summary of the invention: “A method for instructing a 3D printing system that includes a 3D printer provided with a printing coordinate system to print at least one first object onto an existing second object comprises providing or receiving at least one image representing at least a part of the existing second object, determining or receiving an alignment between at least part of the at least one first object and at least part of the existing second object, determining a pose of the existing second object relative to the printing coordinate system according to the at least one image, and providing the 3D printing system with the pose and the alignment for the 3D printer to print at least part of the at least one first object onto the existing second object according to the pose and the alignment.”
Of course, Apple files for — and is granted — lots of patents by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. Many are for inventions that never see the light of day. However, you never can tell which ones will materialize in a real product.