HP turns to 3D printing to revive flagging fortunes

HP turns to 3D printing to revive flagging fortunes

After more than a year of speculation, HP has finally unveiled its 3D printer technology, touting an industrial machine that it claims is half as expensive and 10 times faster than existing systems. But for HP to be successful, it will have to deliver on key technology promises it's made.

On top of its decision to split into two companies, Hewlett-Packard's move into 3D printing appears to be an attempt to spur revenues and rekindle a culture of innovation within the company.

Key to HP's success with its new Multi Jet Fusion industrial 3D printing system will be how open it is to outside developers. An open architecture would allow third-party software and hardware development for applications HP's technologists might not envision.

New approach needed

HP will also need to be open to the use of third-party materials in its printer, said Ross Kozarsky, an analyst at Lux Research.

The Multi Jet Fusion printer will be beta-tested next year and is scheduled to ship in 2016. HP claims the printer runs at least 10 times faster and costs half as much as existing machines, which run anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million.

To maximize its chances in the growing 3D printer market, HP will also need to avoid the innovation-unfriendly practices of its conventional printer business, Kozarsky said.

However lucrative HP's established inkjet printer business model is, "the emerging field of 3D printing will reward more open material models, like the one that 3D printer company Arcam used to break into the aerospace and medical device markets," Kozarsky said.

Arcam makes a 3D printer that uses electron beam melting technology to sinter together metal powder layer by layer to make parts for the orthopedic implant and aerospace industries.

Unlike most other 3D printer makers, Molndal, Sweden-based Arcam focuses on production applications, not rapid parts prototyping. As a result, Kozarsky said, it made important strategic moves such as adopting an open materials model and encouraging third parties to develop materials for its printers.

"It has catalyzed a whole industry consortia to be devoted to developing materials for Arcam's printers," Kozarsky said.

"HP should avoid the shortsighted razor/blade business model -- already employed by the likes of 3D Systems, Stratasys and EOS -- which prioritizes next quarter's profits over innovation and long-term growth," Kozarsky added, referring to the practice of selling one product at a discount but charging a premium for replacement goods -- such as toner -- that are essential to the first product's operation.

The HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer combines the attributes of binder jet printing, where a liquid bonding agent is selectively deposited to join the powder materials, and sintering technology, where layer upon layer of powder material is melted and fused together.

'Blown away' at Ford

Harold Sears, a technical specialist in additive manufacturing technology at Ford, said he was "blown away" by HP's announcement of the new printer, but he's wary about the company's ability to produce production-quality parts.

"They're touting some pretty good [part-printing] accuracy. [But] any technology is able to make [a part] look better if you pick a certain geometry," Sears said, referring to demo parts HP printed. "I can't wait to see it in person and get some automotive parts made on it."

Ford has five 3D prototyping centers that churn out more than 20,000 parts annually. For HP to make inroads at Ford, its printers and materials must be less expensive than existing offerings, Sears said.

"Material properties and cost will forever be an issue," Sears said. "There are some rumors going around... about how they want to address metals. I'm interested to hear where they're going to go with that."

When HP announced the Multi Jet Fusion printer, the company's senior vice president of Inkjet and Graphics Solutions, Steve Nigro, espoused the value of keeping development open to third parties. The company has created an open collaboration program for developers who want to create specialty applications for the 3D printer.

"There's only so much HP can do on its own," Nigro said.

Jury's still out

Deutsche Bank said in a research report that it's hard to fully evaluate HP's technology at the moment, in part because the company offered no information on pricing and few details about print materials.

"However, at first blush the product appears to offer some interesting benefits versus existing 3D printing technologies (namely speed), and given HP's significant resources, we would expect them to be able to garner significant customer interest," Deutsche Bank analyst Sherri Scribner wrote in the report.

Deutsche Bank is optimistic about the overall 3D printing market.

"Given the growth of the market and the significant upside for further adoption of 3D printing technologies, there is still plenty of opportunity for other 3D printing companies to benefit, and we view Stratasys and 3D Systems as well positioned to continue to see growth," Deutsche Bank stated.

HP is not the first to try to improve printer throughput; technologies such as Lough­borough University's high-speed sintering printer have achieved similar tenfold improvements in print speed. But precision suffered, requiring post-production finishing work.

Sears said he's eager to see how the HP system stacks up: "If the speed of this machine really comes through and they're able to develop it in a larger platform... I'm hopeful."

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