Over the past year or so, the tech geeks of the world have been pondering exactly what Hewlett Packard had up their sleeves in the development of their 3D printing technology. Yesterday, we finally found out. The reception received by the HP Multi Jet Fusion technology so far has been a bit mixed, but overall has been leaning toward the positive side. According to Hewlett-Packard’s stock price (NYSE: HPQ), Wall Street doesn’t seem to be either overly excited or very disappointed with the company’s two announcements yesterday. HPQ traded relatively steady, falling only slightly before the market closed.
With the excitement of HP’s 3D printer, comes a lot of speculation as to if it will cause the current “big dogs” within the 3D printing space, such as 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD), and Stratasys (NASDAQ: SSYS) any harm. This is yet to be determined, but let’s investigate the technology behind what makes HP’s new 3D printing so unique, and how it may or may not hurt those companies which they suddenly will be competing against.
HOW HP MULTI JET FUSION WORKS
Not much was explained as far as how HP’s technology works. The key word here is “proprietary technology”. Prior to the announcement, people were pondering if HP was really a company that would have a desire to enter the 3D printing space. After all, since being founded in 1939, they have made a huge name for themselves within the 2D printing space, especially in the mid-1980s when they introduced both inkjet and laser printers to their line of products. However, 2D and 3D are totally different realms. Could HP’s technology really be transferable? Yesterday we found out, and that answer is an emphatic “YES”.
Hewlett Packard, more specifically, soon to be HP Inc., has based much of their Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing technology on intellectual property that they hold for Thermal Inkjet printing. This is the technology used in a great majority of traditional HP printers. It’s the technology that allows for the printing of minute droplets of chemicals onto a surface, thus creating tremendous 2-dimensional colored prints. This same technology, and the patents behind it, are what makes HP’s Multi Jet Fusion both incredibly impressive and a one-of-a-kind achievement. This is the technology that other companies like 3D Systems and Stratasys could only previously have dreamt of utilizing without legal issues from HP.
So how does this technology relate to 3D printing? Unlike other 3D printers that use sophisticated lasers, or UV lights to cure a liquid polymer, HP’s technology is quite different. Much in the same way as 3D SLS (laser) printers lay down a bed of material powder, which is then struck by a precise laser to harden it, HP relies on this same method of printing, minus the laser.
The print process begins with a thin layer of powdered material being laid down on the print bed. After this, the similarities with other industrial level 3D printers pretty much ends. The next step is where HP begins utilizing their proprietary technology, when a large HP Thermal Inkjet array is passed from left-to-right, printing chemical agents across the entire working area (print bed), much in the same was as a traditional inkjet printer would print detailed documents. The HP Thermal Inkjet arrays feature an incredibly high number of nozzles per inch, and close to 30,000 nozzles on the entire print bar. These nozzles are capable of printing over 30 million drops per second across each inch of working area. This includes the ability to precisely lay down a fusing agent, a detailing agent, and/or coloring agent at resolutions previously unheard of within the 3D printing space (20 micron precision).
For those familiar with SLA (stereolithography) based machines which use a UV light to cure a liquid resin, HP’s technology uses an “energy source” to complete the printing of each layer. After the fusing agent and detailing agent are laid down on a single layer of material, an energy source is passed by, virtually “curing” the material, while an additional layer of powder is laid down. The detailing agent is used on areas of the print where fusing action needs to be either reduced or amplified. This leads to parts with sharp, smoother edges, as well as the ability to change textures of objects.
What this technology ultimately will lead to, is the ability for researchers to come up with methods of mixing fusing agents along with detailing agents, with the print material that is laid down on the bed, thus fabricating objects with unique final properties. There is no limit to the number of different chemical mixtures that could be devised, in turn leading to incredibly unique products with equally incredible properties (more on the potential of this below).
Some of the controllable variable properties that are potentially achievable with this technology, according to HP are as follow:
- Accuracy and detail
- Surface roughness, textures, and friction
- Strength, elasticity, and other material characteristics
- Opacity or translucency (for plastics)
- Color (surface as well as embedded)
- Electrical and thermal conductivity
Yes, you did read that last point correctly. HP Multi Jet Fusion technology could lead to extraordinary advancements in the 3D printing of objects which feature electrical and/or thermal conductivity. From the sounds of things, this is going to be something that the company will work on, as they did not showcase any objects with electrical components during their presentation.
Without a doubt, it is HP’s intellectual property which allowed them to come up with a machine that is capable of doing what others on the market currently can not. With this said, however, the first HP 3D printers wont officially be released until 2016. In this 1.5 to 2 year span, HP will certainly be working on ways in which they can create the most useful combinations of material and fusing agents to ultimately produce products with varying degrees of physical and possibly electrical properties.
Also within this time frame, companies like 3D Systems and Stratasys will be working on their own technology trying to maintain the market share that HP hopes to steal from them.
10X’s FASTER THAN ANYTHING ELSE ON THE MARKET
Probably the boldest statement that I heard during the HP event yesterday was when Dion Weisler stated that his company’s Multi Jet Fusion technology is 10 times faster than any other 3D printing technology on the market today. This apparently is true, but how long will this remain a true statement?
Back in June, you may recall a report by 3D Systems that they are working on creating a 3D printing system that looks to increase print speeds by a factor of 50. If this is the case, it looks as though HP will have some catching up of their own to do, perhaps even before they release their first 3D printer to the public.
Undoubtedly, Stratasys is working on their own new technology as well, and with 2 years to catch up to HP, it wouldn’t be surprising to see something from them before the end of next year.
EXTREME ACCURACY IN COLORS AND DEVIATION OF MATERIAL PROPERTIES
Because HP’s technology is so similar to that used by their traditional thermal inkjet printers, this means that color precision can virtually be just as good as we are used to seeing on their other machines. It doesn’t only apply to coloring though. It also applies to the fusing and detailing agents that may be laid down. Remember, these agents are what mix with the materials that are placed on the print bed, meaning that if HP’s R&D department can come up with some creative chemical mixtures, the ability to change properties mid-print could be astonishing.
If you are familiar with 2D printing, you know that a pixel is a single dot on an image. These are seen on printed objects as well as display screens. A 3-dimensional pixel is called a voxel (short for volumetric pixel), and HP’s technology has the ability to print at the volumetric level. This means different colors and potentially properties for each individual voxel.
With that in mind, the potential here is incredible (more on this below).
CONSUMER LEVEL 3D PRINTERS FROM HP?
Most within the industry, predicted that HP would be announcing 3D printing technology directed at industry and large scale corporations. They were right on the mark with these predictions. However, HP has an incredible ability to scale up and down with their technology. Much like their ability to create desktop 2D printers as well as large scale printers used by printing presses, magazines, and other large companies. Remember, their 3D printers will utilize the same HP Thermal Inkjet array technology used by their 2D printers. This ultimately means that it will be possible to scale these machines to reach a lower price point and greater audience, and could perhaps one day lead to HP Multi Jet 3D printers in individual homes.
While HP says that their printers will be more affordable than the competition, this probably doesn’t mean much for ordinary consumers. The competition has machines priced upwards of $250,000, and in some cases much higher. A moderate price decrease won’t exactly make these machines “affordable”.
SAY GOODBYE TO STL FILES
HP Multi Jet Fusion technology will not be able to print using ordinary STL files which we are all used to seeing within the 3D printing space. They simply do not provide enough information for the computer systems on these machines to use when printing in detailed colors. While the company isn’t suggesting a particular file type, they are suggesting that we look elsewhere for answers. They explain:
“Shortcomings of the STL format in terms of processing time and object dimensional precision are a barrier for the production of complex, high-precision parts by new technologies such as HP Multi Jet FusionTM technology. Furthermore, this format only allows geometric representation, so it does not allow voxel-by-voxel information to be carried from the CAD software to the printer. To realize the full potential of 3D printing, the roadmaps of 3D printers and 3D CAD software must be aligned, and the roadmaps must be accompanied by a change to a more information-rich file format.”
This is just the start of HP within the 3D printing space. I get the feeling that the company was rushed a bit into announcing their 3D printing endeavors, as the examples that they have shown us, do not do justice for what this technology is capable of ultimately producing. It really is amazing, and I don’t think too many people realize what it could potentially do for manufacturing. When we talk about the third industrial revolution, I truly believe it is coming, and it will be even more amazing than anyone could possibly imagine, thanks to, in a big part, HP.
The future for HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology is one of complete customization of objects on a one-to-one basis. The groundwork is there to lay down different layers of materials on a layer-by-layer basis, and then mix with these layers a different fusing or detailing agent on an individual pixel level, thus creating completely unique material properties for each and every voxel of an object. This far exceeds the ability of any technology out there today, whether it be 3D printing, hand made products, or more traditional manufacturing methods such as injection molding. This will allow for materials that we have never dreamt possible, featuring colors and properties unlike ever before. I don’t know if everyone reading this can even grasp the concept of what this potentially means, but it could be extraordinary, and completely revolutionary.
Simply judging by the amount of times I have written words like “incredible”, “extraordinary” and “amazing” in this article, there is no question about it that HP will become a major player within the 3D printing space. Will it hurt the bottom line of companies like 3D Systems and Stratasys? This is yet to be determined. While HP can rely on some very useful patents which they hold, so can their competition, who have been working on creating advanced methods of 3D printing for decades longer than HP has. HP’s financial resources should be a huge factor in allowing them to conduct research and development on a massive scale, while also outspending their competition in terms of marketing, and acquiring other newcomers to the industry.
Regardless, the next few years within the 3D printing space will see many incredible advancements, many of which will surprise, stun and fascinate us all. I believe that HP will join the current leaders like 3D Systems and Stratasys in doing so. This is only the beginning.
What do you think about HP’s 3D printing announcement? What is the potential that this technology could create? Discuss in the HP 3D Printer forum thread on 3DPB.com.