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HP to jolt 3D printer market

Agam Shah | Nov. 3, 2014
HP's faster 3D printing could provide an immediate impact on prices and speed up development of the technology.

For Jerry Castanos, who runs 3D Heights, a 3D printer store in New York, HP will bring immediate legitimacy to the 3D printing industry.

"It is going to have an impact. 3D printing is going to go mainstream even more," said Castanos, who uses industrial 3D printers to make models and objects for customers.

If HP meets its technology goals and leverages its strong distribution and support network, it will force competitors to lower prices and raise the speed and quality of printing, Castanos agreed.

3D printing has already reduced the cost of making parts for commercial customers, but there is room for further price reductions, Wohlers said.

"In some ways the industry has been a bit too relaxed and not as motivated as some customers may have liked in terms of price-performance ratio," Wohlers said.

3D printing industry revenue totaled US$3.07 billion in 2013 and is expected to quadruple by 2018, according to Wohlers. HP's products haven't yet been factored into the forecast, but Wohlers believes HP could immediately expand the industry. He'll factor in HP products into the next forecast. The top players in the 3D printing market today include 3D Systems and Stratasys.

HP's new Multi Jet technology draws on conventional 3D printing technology, but uses new techniques and materials. The process of making a 3D object starts with placing material -- also called powder -- on a surface. The material is fused by a fluid jetted out by the print head. A heating source located around the print head helps solidify the object, and a second material is deposited to enhance the finish and surface of the 3D object. The process is repeated multiple times.

The exact technology behind HP's fusing agents and heat source remains a mystery, but the company's 3D printing technology draws from conventional binder-jetting and laser-sintering techniques, which are still prevalent in 3D printing.

Binder-jetting involves using specific types of ink and colorant to merge and make objects, and was commercialized in the 1990s by Z Corp., which was ultimately acquired by 3D Systems. Laser-sintering involves using laser beams on the powder to heat up and fuse materials. HP says its technology will produce parts at "10 times the build speed and at breakthrough economics," compared to laser-sintering technology.

HP's business plans for the 3D printing market remain unknown. If the fluid technology is proprietary, the business model may resemble HP's conventional printing business, which makes money by selling ink cartridges and printers.

"I don't think HP has sorted that out," Gartner's Basiliere said. "It's too early to say if it'll be a closed model like in consumer."

HP is also working with companies like Adobe and Microsoft to design models for 3D content, which will help streamline the process of object creation, analysts said.


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