In 1984, HP introduced the first mass-market inkjet printer. Called the DeskJet, it helped redefine what was possible for home printing, pushing capabilities beyond clunky dot matrix and into a more refined, reliable—and eventually, colorful—practice. In 2016, HP is announcing the Jet Fusion 3D, which hopes to give the same transformative lift to commercial 3-D printing.
The implications aren’t quite as wide-ranging; for starters, the Jet Fusion 3D’s focus sits squarely on industrial uses, rather than broad consumer appeal. Still, it could help 3D-printing make an important, inevitable transition. Instead of just pumping out prototypes, it can help with actual production.
Closing that gap has major implications—and represents a significant opportunity. “We want to change how the world designs,” says Steve Nigro, president of 3-D printing at HP. Here’s how they think they can do it.
All the Print That’s Fit
The MakerBot hype may have fizzled, but 3-D printing—or “additive manufacturing,” as it’s also known—is a big business, at least in the commercial space. That’s because it’s not just a fad; it makes tangible business sense.
“There are three key benefits to additive manufacturing over conventional production methods: customization, convenience and efficiency,” says Canalys analyst Joe Kempton. The applies particularly to the prototyping phase, says Kempton. One tweak of a CAD file can produce an entirely new variation on a design in no time at all. Those different versions can all be produced in-house, instead of relying on a remote facility to create and then ship each one. And it’s far more cost-effective, when making only a few of something for trial purposes, to print it rather than pursue traditional manufacturing techniques.
The faster a company can churn through various prototypes, the faster it can settle on a final design. That’s why roughly three-quarters of all 3-D printing goes toward prototyping, according to Canalys estimates. There’s a transition coming, though, toward 3-D printing pieces that actually go into finished products.
“We are beginning to see a large shift in the industry, as the technology has evolved to a point where it is possible to create real end-use pieces for application in a wide range of industries,” says Kempton, citing aerospace and automotive as leading the charge. It’s that shift that HP wants to be at the forefront of.
“Prototyping is great, but companies want to know how to 3D-printing can transform their business,” says Nigro. The answer’s pretty simple: make it fast and affordable, and do it at scale.
Practice What You Print
The Jet Fusion 3D’s biggest selling point may be that it walks the walk, or whatever the industrial additive manufacturing equivalent is. Which is to say: up to half of its components can be 3-D printed by a Jet Fusion 3D. It’s a printer that can largely print itself.
Nigro, who’s worked at HP for decades, says that the secret to HP’s success here comes at least in part from lessons learned in the inkjet world.
“When I joined HP I worked in the R&D lab on inkjet technology in the early days, before we had any product,” says Nigro. “If you look at all the components that we’re using in our printer, they pretty much reuse the leverage from HP printing assets.” That includes everything from actual printheads to the chemical processes that govern how certain materials respond to the printing process.
The result is a 3-D printer that can print individual voxels (a “voxel” is the 3-D equivalent of a pixel), at a resolution of 21 microns, which is about .02 millimeters. As you might imagine, that allows for impressive granular control over the finished product, as well as a seamless finish. The Jet Fusion 3D couples that precision with speed; it can plow through 340 million voxels per second. HP pegs it as being up to 10 times faster than comparably priced solutions.
By combining that speed with a price that’s still well outside of consumer reach but not absurd for large companies—BMW, Nike, and others have already signed on as partners—HP is advancing the idea that 3D printing can compete with traditional manufacturing in fairly large quantities. Or at least, that it will be able to some day soon.
Tipping the Scale
What prevents 3-D printing from replacing traditional manufacturing is the same thing that makes it useful for prototyping; the latter is very expensive for a few items, but typically becomes more cost-effective at scale. Until a 3-D printer can compete on a financial level, it’ll remain useful, but not ubiquitous.
The Jet Fusion 3D hasn’t yet cracked that problem completely, but it’s getting closer. Nigro gives a hypothetical case of producing small gears; it would currently be cheaper to 3-D print them, versus creating mold to churn them out the traditional way, up to nearly 55,000 units. That’s not bad! But it’s still not transformative.
That’s partly why HP also focuses on the innovations to come. It’s good now, and its potential is undeniable, but it’s not yet great.
“It is absolutely a game changer for the 3D printing industry,” says Canalys’s Kempton. “But there are many more hurdles before HP’s printer can be considered the best possible system on the market.” That honor goes to more established players in the space, like EOS and 3D Systems.
HP is aware of its current limitations, and has a roadmap to address them. The company is capable—though not with today’s commercial models—of embedding strain gages and electronics with a 3-D printed object. It’s going to add both visible colors and photoluminescence materials to its offering. In fact, it’s opening up its materials offerings to third parties, making the Jet Fusion 3D something of a physical platform.
“Today we have very limited materials,” says Nigro. “When we looked at that problem, there was really no way that we could develop all our own materials, so we decided to take a very open approach.” Think of it as an app store, but for high-grade polymers. The only requirements are that the materials actually fit the size of the printhead, and that it works with the Jet Fusion 3D’s thermal process—in other words, it’ll heat up, soften then harden again.
That so many of the Jet Fusion 3D’s best traits are still on the to-do list may sound a little disheartening, but it becomes less so when you recognize that what it can do right now is already pretty darn impressive. It’s a strong foundation on which to 3-D print the inevitable manufacturing future.
“The real importance of HP’s technology lies not in what it is able to do today, but how it will totally disrupt the industry down the road as its capabilities expand,” says Kempton.
Besides, HP already cracked the future of printing once. Why not do it again?