The Next Big Thing: Printed Cars and Homes

By Rob Enderle October 11, 2011

I was at IPG, which is HP’s printing and Imaging division, and they showed me some amazing technologies.   They currently are able to use their print head technology to do everything from pharmaceutical testing to printing the icing on cakes.   They are already printing custom wall and floor coverings and have technology that prints automotive wraps.   This last has largely replaced painted signs on cars and it look damn close to paint and it is starting to replace paint on custom cars

I can even imagine a James Bond movie where he is being chased in a flat black Austin Martin and drives through a Q facility to emerge in one that is brilliant red with new plates and is indistinguishable from the black one.   It is amazing that we may be just a few short years from making this movie magic a reality.

At the event, HP indicated that China had used building wraps during the Olympics to make it look like skyscrapers which were not completed in time were actually done.   So thinking ahead, why couldn’t HP’s printing technology take the next step and move to printing directly on cars and walls like they now do with cakes and flooring?   Some of the pictures of this stuff are amazing. 

Imagining a Car Printer

I used to paint cars when I was younger and now car companies have robots that do what I did. The problem with fine work like pin striping and edging, not to mention flames, is that it typically requires hand work because the sprayers aren’t accurate enough.   However HP’s print head technology is accurate enough and, if it can do cladding, it can do cars. The issue is that the heads have to be really close the subject matter in order to work, but HP also makes very accurate sensors and they can certainly partner with someone who does robotic arms with the level of precision this would require.   Granted, with ever better wraps, wraps might be an even better approach because then the car would simply need to be primed and you could change the wrapping of the car for a few hundred dollars (mostly labor) instead of the $12K it typically costs, and you wouldn’t have to deal with painting over it.  

Of course, with the right pain formulation it is likely you could create a paint that could be easily recovered with primer and then you might be able to have your car repainted in a facility similar to a car wash in just a little more time.  Dealerships could print cars in the custom colors that customers wanted and change those colors as needed when the vehicles came back in on trade-in or off of a lease.  

Painting the car like this is likely several years out, but I’m looking into the wrapping solution today and if I do it, I’ll publish a picture of my car wrapped.

Imagining a House Printer

The printed wall paper solutions are amazing.   You can have images out of your favorite movies, landscapes you’ve taken, or even pictures from Mars turned into wall murals that can transform a room into something amazing.   The issue with wall paper is you have to get someone who is really good at it, otherwise the result looks like crap and it is even harder to do when you are talking about pictures where the lines between the panels are hard to cover up.    In addition, the wallpaper solution works inside a house but not so well outside. 

Imagine the outside of your house looking like it was made of gold, titanium, burnished copper or exotic stone.    HP’s capability is photorealistic, so if you can imagine it, inside or outside; if you could create a print head that would track across a surface, you should be able to print the inside or outside of a home or business.    And, because the walls don’t take traffic (we don’t recommend walking on the walls) you don’t have the problem with putting down a heavy clear coat to protect the image.    Now, you’d likely have to come up with a really smooth surface to paint on because the print heads have close tolerances but, once in place, you could have the beauty of marble, metals, or wall art for the fraction of the cost of real materials or custom painters.   Once again, sensors and robotics would move the painting device across the wall and the finishing clear coat could be either sprayed on manually by the painter or be part of the printing process.   

Imagine working with your spouse who can then change her (or his) mind on materials long after the house is done and, for about the cost of repainting it, change the exotic trim materials to taste.   Until these printers are developed, I imagine the car wrap technology could be easily modified to work on the exterior of homes and they are already doing interiors with custom wallpaper.

Wrapping Up:   Just the Beginning

I think we are at the beginning of a printing revolution where the thing we buy, big or small, can be easily custom painted to look like pictures or exotic materials in and around our homes and cars.   It is only a matter of time before we can print our own clothes and accessories as well.   If this technology is applied creatively we could be just a few months or years from it being as easy to change the color of our homes and cars as it is to give them a detailed cleaning. 

In the meantime, if you are thinking of a custom car or want an imaginative room, you might consider the printed alternatives already in the market and an inexpensive way to get an impressive result. 

Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group. To read more of his articles on TechZone360, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves

President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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