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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

HP Adding A New Dimension To Printing: A True Revolution Or Impossible Dream?

January 14th, 2016 by Jeff Rowe

For as long as I can remember, HP has produced an incredible range of products for science, engineering, and consumer customers. More recently the company has had a huge presence in computers and 2D printers.

Now, HP has vision for 3D printing for manufacturing parts on a relatively economical machine it calls the Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) 3D printer. The company claims these parts will have similar quality and characteristics as injection-molded parts, and will print at speeds that HP claims to be 10x compared to similar competing technologies. More about these claims to follow.

However, I have to wonder if HP will be able to fulfill its promise.


The HP Multi Jet Fusion Printer

HP wants to deliver SLS-quality parts on a system targeted at the professional 3D printer market. So-called professional 3D printers can be run in office environments and use photopolymers as material and inkjet printheads for material deposition. HP’s Multi Jet Fusion uses a printhead to jet a resin onto a powderbed where it will be fused.

In a Multi Jet Fusion technology white paper HP states, “Compared to SLS, HP Multi-Jet Fusion technology helps reduce the overall focused energy requirements needed to attain full fusing, resulting in more consistent material properties.” So SLS has higher “focused overall energy requirements,” yet the strong thermal bonds this energy creates is exactly what make SLS so desirable. So, exactly what is this process and can it really create material properties that match SLS and even injection-molded parts?

HP’s new Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer: First Look

Historically, parts made from 3D printers, such as the MJF have lacked the robust mechanical properties of injection-molded parts. SLS is the only viable additive manufacturing technology capable of matching injection-molded parts in tensile strength and long-term stability. Materials undergoing the fusion process have issues that point to a natural limitation, not a technological oversight that HP or any other manufacturer can truly fix.

Outwardly, HP’s product and process appear to be extensions of 3D Systems’ 4500 technology that deposits an acrylate resin onto an acrylate powder bed, which is then heated for inducing polymerization. While this marriage of inkjet and powder-bed is innovative, the resulting parts probably won’t be as robust as thermally bonded, polyamide SLS parts.

That said, I am somewhat skeptical of HP’s technology, yet hopeful because the machine is a potential dream product, but is it an impossible dream? HP has created a machine that could revolutionize the industry, now it just needs to find a way to make the machine work as claimed. No small feat.

A Tale of Two Companies

Keep in mind that HP is now two companies – Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, which sells gear and services for data centers and commercial computing, and HP Inc., which sells printers and personal computers.

There has been a lot of attention directed toward HP Enterprise and considered the more ambitious of the two. But, big bets have been placed on HP Inc.  One of them is on an historic Hewlett-Packard strength: 2D printing. This time, however, it’s in 3D, and the risks and rewards are much bigger.

Let’s be honest, today’s large 3D printers are relatively slow, expensive, and difficult to use.

HP 3D printing to the rescue? The new division plans to launch a line of 3D printers this year that promises to top competing machines from competitors such as Stratasys and 3D Systems. “All of the excitement about the market is real,” says Stephen Nigro, president of HP 3D Printing. “But there are a lot of problems to overcome.” Well said, and true.

HP Multi Jet Fusion Technology: Disruptive 3D printing technology for a new era of manufacturing

The MJF technology uses a thermal inkjet array and chemical agents to produce what it says are more reliable and precise parts. Objects can be made from a variety of materials in an array of colors and, crucially, at speeds 10 times faster than what’s available from today’s commercial 3D printers.

The potential return is huge. The global market for 3D-printing products and services will grow from $5.5 billion in 2015 to $21.2 billion in 2020, according to the Wohlers Report.

It’s a steep climb, but Nigro, who started at HP in 1982 as part of the team that developed the first color inkjet printer, is optimistic: “We plan to be the leader in 3D printing.”

This means that HP Inc. will be able to give a bigger share of its attention to the new 3D printing business, which builds on HP’s core competency of placing precise quantities of multiple types of fluid materials.

HP’s Nigro has positioned the MJF as a breakthrough, calling it part of HP’s “vision to change industries.” He said the MJF can print in different elasticities, in various colors, and with uniform part strength without compromising surface finish. It can also print electrical and thermal conductivity characteristics in the same part.

SME Fellow Terry Wohlers, a world-leading AM expert, said that MJF is “one of the biggest developments in the history of additive manufacturing and 3D printing.”

While HP’s 3D printer is available today, it won’t be widely available until later this year. HP is currently working with a select group of customers to fine-tune it and is inviting collaborative development of the printer, materials (it currently prints thermoplastics, but is researching ceramics and metals), as well as the aging STL digital file format, which HP believes (understandably) is inherently limiting.

Ultimately, can we realistically expect something analogous to a 2D printing command (CTRL + P) to become a CTRL+3DP for printing 3D objects? Probably not tomorrow, but possibly sometime in the future. If anybody can make this happen, HP just might be the company that does it.

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