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HP's move into 3D printing will radically change manufacturing

Lucas Mearian | Nov. 3, 2014
Rival 3D printer makers will have to step up their game or be left behind.

HP is claiming its 3D printing technology, called Multi Jet Fusion, will enable mass production of parts instead of just rapid prototyping. The new machine is unlikely to mass produce millions or billions of product parts; think, instead, in terms of tens, hundreds or thousands of parts.

Imagine 100 Multi Jet Fusion printers all churning out replacement parts on an as-needed basis for an aircraft or automotive manufacturer -- and say goodbye to inventory storage costs or wasted product. Say you've got a new model car or you need to modify a faulty part -- just adjust the part in CAD software and hit "print" again.

If there's any doubt about that prospect, you need look no further than Ford or Airbus, two multi-billion-dollar, multinational companies that have been successfully integrating 3D printing into parts production for years.

"I see this as a revolutionary technology," said Pete Basiliere, research vice president at Gartner. It's unique, not because the printer's components haven't ever existed, but because they've never been combined into a new, faster process.

The printer works by using a print bar that looks like a scanning bar on a typical 2D printer. The 3D print bar, however, has 30,000 nozzles spraying 350 million drops a second of thermoplastic or other powdered materials as it moves back and forth across a print platform.

The 3D printer combines the attributes of binder jet printing, where a liquid bonding agent is selectively deposited to join the powder materials, and selective laser/electron beam sintering, where layer upon layer of powder material is fused together with heat.

HP showed examples of 3D prints that were astounding in their complexity and durability. In one example, a one-quarter pound metal chain link was printed in half an hour and then tested to withstand 10,000 lbs. of pressure. In another example, a miniature model of an oil rig was printed with multiple colors and complex rigging thinner than pencil lead.

While the Multi Jet Fusion printer isn't due out until 2016 -- it'll be beta tested by manufacturers in 2015 -- its unveiling is sure to spur R&D in the 3D printing industry and beyond. That's because the company that invents and successfully markets a better manufacturing method wins.

A survey of 100 top manufacturers by PricewaterhouseCoopers revealed that two-thirds are using 3D printing, some for rapid prototyping and others for production or custom parts.

As 3D printing techniques evolve to handle multiple materials and faster processes, they will find use beyond rapid prototyping, PwC said.

"As has happened all throughout history, if you invent a new process for making things, people will design new and better things," said Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, a maker of professional 3D design software.


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