HP's move into 3D printing will radically change manufacturing

HP's entry into the 3D printer marketplace this week will change manufacturing forever as the king of 2D print technology brings its 30 years of R&D to bear on a nascent market.

HP's announcement this week that it's entering the 3D printing market with an industrial machine that is 10 times faster and 50 per cent cheaper than current systems, immediately brought out the online snark.

"The question is, will it print a prototype that's just in black if you're out of Yellow polymer?" Reddit user ILikeLenexa wondered.

"3D printing from the company that charges the moon and stars for ink refills? Full vendor lock in? I don't think so..." wrote another named TotalWaffle.

Cynicism aside, HP is a $US112 billion company whose products span the corporate and consumer marketplace, and it can bring to bear 30 years of 2D printer R&;D on the 3D printer space.

Simply put, the move is unprecedented.

"There's a lot of parallels between document printing and 3D printing, so our company's been looking at HP for a long time, thinking it's an excellent candidate to enter this market place," said Terry Wohlers, president of research firm Wohlers Associates. Recently, Wohlers said he was given a demonstration of HP's new Multi Jet Fusion printer and was "blown away" by the speed, quality, feature details of printed items and by the brilliant colors it produces.

"It's better than I expected. It's many times faster than anything on the market," he said. "It's something that is vastly different than what has even been developed before."

In the 3D printing world, buzz about an HP entry has been going on for the past year, and it has evoked both anticipation among those who use 3D printers and fear within the small but fast growing community of 3D machine manufacturers.

Stratasys, the largest maker of 3D printers today, and a company that regularly sees 60 per cent year over year revenue growth, said HP's entry is far from frightening. "This activity will bring more awareness, and it will lift the overall space. We see it as a big opportunity for the industry," the company said in a response to a Computerworld request for comment.

Wohlers said that while 3D printing is still in its "early days" HP's move will accelerate growth in ways never seen.

"HP's new 3D printer, if people see that and they're not blown away, then they don't understand what it takes to built parts using conventional manufacturing," Wohlers said. "It's not only a game changer, it's going to rewrite the rules in the 3D printing industry."

3D printing, which has been around since the 1980s, has mainly been used to more quickly produce prototypes -- a process known as rapid prototyping through additive manufacturing. Rapid prototyping with additive manufacturing slashes development time and costs because test parts no longer need to be sent off to a design firm and then cut on a giant machine tool lathe from blocks of metal or other materials. With that method, it's one mistake and back to the drawing board.

HP is claiming its 3D printing technology, called Multi Jet Fusion, will enable mass production of parts instead of just rapid prototyping. The new machine is unlikely to mass produce millions or billions of product parts; think, instead, in terms of tens, hundreds or thousands of parts.

Imagine 100 Multi Jet Fusion printers all churning out replacement parts on an as-needed basis for an aircraft or automotive manufacturer -- and say goodbye to inventory storage costs or wasted product. Say you've got a new model car or you need to modify a faulty part -- just adjust the part in CAD software and hit "print" again.

If there's any doubt about that prospect, you need look no further than Ford or Airbus, two multi-billion-dollar, multinational companies that have been successfully integrating 3D printing into parts production for years.

"I see this as a revolutionary technology," said Pete Basiliere, research vice president at Gartner. It's unique, not because the printer's components haven't ever existed, but because they've never been combined into a new, faster process.

The printer works by using a print bar that looks like a scanning bar on a typical 2D printer. The 3D print bar, however, has 30,000 nozzles spraying 350 million drops a second of thermoplastic or other powdered materials as it moves back and forth across a print platform.

The 3D printer combines the attributes of binder jet printing, where a liquid bonding agent is selectively deposited to join the powder materials, and selective laser/electron beam sintering, where layer upon layer of powder material is fused together with heat.

HP showed examples of 3D prints that were astounding in their complexity and durability. In one example, a one-quarter pound metal chain link was printed in half an hour and then tested to withstand 10,000 lbs. of pressure. In another example, a miniature model of an oil rig was printed with multiple colors and complex rigging thinner than pencil lead.

While the Multi Jet Fusion printer isn't due out until 2016 -- it'll be beta tested by manufacturers in 2015 -- its unveiling is sure to spur R&D in the 3D printing industry and beyond. That's because the company that invents and successfully markets a better manufacturing method wins.

A survey of 100 top manufacturers by PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed that two-thirds are using 3D printing, some for rapid prototyping and others for production or custom parts.

As 3D printing techniques evolve to handle multiple materials and faster processes, they will find use beyond rapid prototyping, PwC said.

"As has happened all throughout history, if you invent a new process for making things, people will design new and better things," said Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, a maker of professional 3D design software.

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