HP’s 3D Print Breakthrough Could Push Rivals ‘Out of Business’ with the 3D printing technology becoming more and more available it will shape how business is done going forward #InnovativeGadgets
After years of tinkering in the labs, Hewlett-Packard finally is making a big bet on 3D printing. Although HP is targeting a crowded market, the company’s inkjet technology — announced today — looks so revolutionary to analyst Terry Wohlers that he predicts “it could even put some other companies out of business.”
Factory bosses around the world are intrigued by the potential for 3D printing, which rapidly fuses together layer after layer of plastics or other materials, until a full-fledged object is created. In recent years, pioneers such as Stratasys and 3D Systems have transformed this technique from a science-fair curiosity into a mainstream manufacturing technique. In the auto and aviation industries, 3D printing (also known as additive manufacturing) helps prototype all kinds of parts. In dentistry and jewelry, 3D printing is part of everyday production, especially for intricate, customized items.
Dion Weisler, HP’s head of printing and personal systems, calls 3D printing “an opportunity to create the next industrial revolution. It’s that profound.” Analysts at IDC International estimate that global spending on 3D printers, supplies and services will total a relatively modest $2.7 billion this year. But they expect long-term growth of 29% a year — far beyond the usual trend lines in manufacturing. Bullish analysts at Morgan Stanley foresee even faster annual growth of 34%, or more than $20 billion in sales by 2020.
By choosing inkjet technology, HP is sticking with methods that have helped it make billions over the years, as the dominant player in conventional, two-dimensional printing on paper. HP officials earlier this month showed FORBES some massive inkjet print heads that have been configured by engineers in Barcelona, Spain, to handle finely powdered versions of the nylon plastics frequently used for 3D projects. Video footage of the print heads in action ishere.
HP’s scientists took a close look at other 3D printing methods, says Stephen Nigro, the company’s senior vice president for inkjet and graphics solutions — but ultimately decided they could get the best results by extending their own home-grown approach. The result, Nigro says, are 3D print heads that can operate 10,000 nozzles at once, while tracking designs to a five-micron precision. (By comparison, a single strand of silk is at least 11 microns wide.)
With that many nozzles in action simultaneously, Nigro declares, HP’s Multi Jet Fusion printer can crank out objects 10 times faster than any machine that’s on the market today. “That means a fundamentally lower cost,” he adds. HP’s main comparisons have been versus another leading method of 3D printing: selective laser sintering, which involves using lasers to heat and fuse powders.
At Wohlers Associates, a Fort Collins, Colo., market research and consulting firm, president Terry Wohlers predicts that HP’s faster throughput and lower costs could make 3D printing more competitive with traditional injection molding in plastics manufacturing. “You won’t see 3D printing used for stadium seats” or other high-volume, simple design items, he says. For more sophisticated designs that are made on smaller production runs, however, he says the market for 3D-printing solutions could expand considerably.
HP hasn’t yet announced prices for its machines, which will be tested with key customers for much of 2015 and won’t be widely available for sale until early 2016. But Nigro said that he’s most interested in reaching big industrial users and service bureaus that carry out jobs for small businesses, rather than focusing on the low-end consumer or hobbyist market. Many industrial 3D printers are priced at $150,000 to $500,000 apiece, and Nigro signaled that HP will probably aim its efforts toward the low end of that band.
Sophia Vargas, an analyst at Forrester Research, notes that the overall 3D printing market actually consists of many highly distinctive sub-markets, each of which is “very use-case specific.” HP’s inkjet technology appears well-suited toward handling plastics, but it hasn’t yet been shown to be workable for metals or other materials. By contrast, various laser technologies are better suited to metals.
Stratasys, for one, has been beefing up its laser-based expertise with recent acquisitions. As a result, 3D printing’s main rivals may enjoy strong growth without constantly bumping into one another.
Still, investors this year have been knocking down share prices of 3D printing companies from giddy heights, amid anxieties about the arrival of new competitors. Established 3D printing outfits include ExOne, Voxeljet and Materialise NV. Emerging new entrants include not just HP, but also Autodesk, which in May said it is developing its own printer along with an open-software platform for 3D printing.
By waiting this long, HP is hoping to pull off a strategic leap similar to what International Business Machines accomplished in 1981, when it entered the personal-computer market that was already deeply influenced by early entrants such as Apple and Commodore. Like IBM, HP has the advantages of brand, reliability and a big sales force. Those strengths can help win business with risk-averse, Global 2000 customers. Beyond that, HP executives clearly are hoping they can make inroads on the strength of eye-catching new technology, too.