HP's Slow Boat to 3D Printing is Not Looking Good


Last week, HP announced it will be delivering its first 3D printing in 2016. The Multi Jet Fusion technology is getting raves, but HP may not be moving fast enough to make the impact it needs to be a dominant player in the marketplace.

HP Multi Jet Fusion will print 10 times faster than existing 3D printers, be more affordable, and print stronger products, says HP. It is supposed to hit a new sweet spot with better quality, increased productivity, and what the company bills as "break-through economics."

The secret sauce to Multi Jet Fusion is built on HP thermal inkjet technology and uses "wide" inkjet arrays – think lots and lots of print heads stacked the length of a print working area – to print a level, followed by a pass of a second carriage working at right angles to the print array to coat, detail, and fuse the object being built to provide sharper, smoother edges and details.

HP has been working with inkjet technology for over 30 years, so applying all that corporate knowledge from working with drops of ink to droplets of plastic gives the company a substantial advantage over first-generation 3D printers using spools of plastic thread to create an item. An HP whitepaper shows Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) is capable of mixing and matching four different source material colors in the same part and should be capable of blending source materials to create millions of distinct colors.

Longer term, MJF printers will be able to control strength, elasticity and other material characteristics, opacity or translucency for plastics, and electrical and thermal conductivity properties. The last two are of particular interest to HP as it would enable the company to essentially "print" its own circuit boards and discreet parts for its own products.

The first generation MJF printer will use thermoplastics. Ceramics and metals are under investigation, opening up very interesting avenues for both hobbyists and businesses. Being able to mix and match materials adds another level of flexibility to build devices.

However, HP isn't the only company in the 3D printing world. Stratasys and others are also looking at next-generation printing technology while traditional 2D printer stalwarts Canon, Epson and Ricoh also have 3D solutions. Japan dominated the laser printer engine market and has numerous processes and patents to bring to bear on 3D printing. Smaller firms can afford to take risks and experiment with techniques and technologies that aren't constrained by "What tech can we package/recycle in our portfolio?"

HP is positioning 3D printing as a part of a bigger vision of a "Blended Reality" ecosystem. Sprout (uh, what a odd name for a computer), a 3D scanner/projector/designer workstation is HP's first product in the Blended Reality ecosystem, where people will work with real and digital items, using 3D printing to crank out real-world draft pieces and finished widgets.

Blended Reality is a deep-thought concept, like HP's "Machine." While the William Gibson camp may like it, I'm not sure if it will be a help or hindrance. The 3D printing world may just run right past it to less weighty marketing-speak, leaving HP playing catch up once again.


Contributing Editor

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