NEW YORK—In recent years, printing giant Hewlett-Packard rebadged 3D printers from a competitor with the HP nameplate and sold them in Europe to serve industrial customers. Now, though, as 3D printing gains wider use by businesses and continues to expand the possibilities of users, HP is moving ahead with the development and production of its own line of business 3D printers by the end of 2016.
The company’s earlier sales experiences with those original 3D printers from Stratasys were very helpful in showing HP that the market for the devices was just waiting to be tapped and expanded, Scott Schiller, worldwide director for 3D printing at HP, told eWEEK in an exclusive interview here at the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo on April 16.
“We were able to demonstrate that our brand had a material impact” on the sales and use of the very specialized printers, Schiller said. “But we needed different tech for HP. We have this beating heart of engineers who are very passionate about their work and they wanted to get into this space.”
The idea of creating HP’s own line of 3D printers that would do what was specifically needed by HP’s diverse customer segments was what the engineers wanted to tackle, he said. “In many cases, they would work on their own time to develop their ideas.”
With that in mind, HP is now working on a line of its own business 3D printers with HP Multi Jet Fusion technology that it plans to offer for sale by the end of 2016, Schiller said.
The first HP 3D printers will be aimed at medium and large enterprises that require the capabilities of so-called service bureaus, which are businesses that print one-off 3D parts or projects for other businesses that want to see what their ideas look like in 3D before spending a lot of money for actual tooling or production, said Schiller.
Other potential users would include customers in a variety of business segments, including aerospace, automotive and consumer goods manufacturers, he said.
HP knows that it’s not coming into a wide-open field, said Schiller. The world of industrial and commercial 3D printing has been around for several decades, used by a wide range of product manufacturers, aerospace companies and others to quickly design and produce prototypes, molds, one-off parts and more without having to invest lots of money and time. Major manufacturers of 3D printers include Stratasys, 3D Systems, ExOne, EOS, Concept Laser, Arcam, Beijing Tiertime and XYZprinting. Top-of-the-line industrial 3D printers can sell for as much as $5 million, while consumer based devices can be purchased for as little as $499 from other smaller vendors.
Having a wide range of established competitors in the space is not necessarily a drawback, said Schiller. Back in 2009, HP jumped in to the world of high volume digital print manufacturing using inkjets just as the global economic recession was happening, causing worries that it was a scary time to be exploring a new business segment. “We were terrified,” he said. “It took years to build it, and we thought it might go flat” due to the global economic woes. Instead, it took off and ended up bringing new ideas and help to publishers who were having their own business woes and needed new answers, he said.
“Everybody says ‘you’re late, you’re late,'” about developing a line of 3D printers now, he said. “Well, it’s been around for 25 years” and innovations are still happening in the marketplace every day, he added. “Instead, the question is what impact we can have?”
For HP, the answer is simple, said Schiller. “We can make other companies more confident about investing in this space, and we can help smaller companies by driving standards for 3D printing. We’re looking at the big picture and positioning for the long run.”
HP Plans 3D Printing Line, Looks to Future Innovation
The first HP machines will print using thermoplastics, with other materials, including metals, to come later, said Schiller. “It could be in the future that we can find ways to emulate materials. It is the tip of the iceberg” for what could be possible. “What about having the ability to make parts when they are no longer in production? As you can imagine, we have the biggest business enterprises in the world coming to us and saying, ‘Oh, do we have a vision for this,'” he said. “I’m more excited about what we don’t see that’s coming.”
As part of its move into 3D printing with its own products, HP has also joined a new 3D printing consortium that is forming within the industry to develop standards that will make it easier for customers to buy and use machines that interact with each other for better manageability, said Schiller. HP’s 3D systems will include software that is open source, along with open licensing and Windows 10 integration. “Good things are coming on the workflow side,” he said. “The way you drive transformation, to get to that future that everybody is so excited about, is by really getting the key players aligned with a unified vision.”
In the past five years, 3D printing has been growing much faster as enterprises of all sizes find out they can buy a device for as little as $500 and begin trying out new ideas they never dreamed of in the past. Much of the latest enthusiasm for 3D printing comes from a blooming hobbyist or “maker” movement that has helped bring down the cost of smaller devices to where companies of any size can now afford to try one.
Today, the global 3D printing business is a $2.2 billion market that continues to grow. 3D printers typically work by laying down layer upon layer of material to gradually build up a part until it is complete. There are seven different technologies used in 3D printers that work with various materials, including plastics and metals.
Worldwide shipments of 3D printers are expected to double in 2015 to 217,350 units, up from 108,151 in 2014, according to figures released in October 2014 by Gartner.