October 30, 2014      

Wake-up call or panic time?

If 3D printing is said to be a revolution on factory floors just about everywhere, then the current industry whisper has it that Hewlett-Packard’s newly announced Multi-Jet Fusion 3D printing system might well be a new revolution within that revolution.

Technology aside, what is definitely known is that a printer giant with decades of expertise is rolling out a new product that could quickly gain considerable market share. HP’s size, brand, sales force and aftermarket may make it harder — much harder — for all of the 3D competitors.

UBS Securities analyst Steven Milunovich said that any impact from HP’s 3D move will be long in coming, especially since it won’t have a 3D printer until 2016. Andrea James, an analyst at Dougherty & Company, agreed, citing Stratasys as one competitor that might escape immediate pressure.

“HP’s technology is not the same as Stratasys technology,” she said. “HP appears to have designed a machine based on a variation of binder-jetting technology, which is more similar to 3D Systems/Z Corp. machines. HP will likely target customers who buy selective laser sintering machines. Stratasys doesn’t play in the SLS market.”

Shares experienced an immediate reaction to the news. Seeking Alpha pointed out that the competitors aren’t taking the news too well: 3D Systems was down 6.2 percent; Stratasys tumbled by 6.1 percent. ExOne lost 8.1 percent, and Voxeljet jettisoned 3.6 percent.

Okay, that’s the market’s reaction at first blush to the HP gorilla entering the room, but are the companies that created the 3D printing industry witnessing their own demise?

10,000 nozzles at 5micron precision

multijet fusion

It has been barely 20 days since HP announced its intention to split into two distinct business units (Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and HP Inc.), and already one of them — HP Inc. — has come charging forth with its long-speculated dive into 3D printing.

It’s a dive with some substance behind it: 3D printing analyst, Terry Wohlers is out already touting it as so revolutionary, saying, “It could even put some other companies out of business.”

Basically, HP leveraged its inkjet printer technology to create what it calls Multi-Jet Fusion, which equates to 3D print heads that can operate 10,000 nozzles at once with 5 microns of precision. Mighty thin compared with a sheet of paper at 100 microns.

“HP officials earlier this month [October] showed Forbes some massive inkjet print heads that have been configured by engineers in Barcelona, Spain, to handle finely powdered versions of the nylon plastics frequently used for 3D projects,” reported George Anders.

See below for Anders’ video report on HP’s 3D technology:

“With that many nozzles in action simultaneously, HP’s Multi-Jet Fusion printer can crank out objects 10 times faster than any machine that’s on the market today,” said Stephen Nigro, the company’s senior vice president for inkjet and graphics solutions. “That means a fundamentally lower cost.”

Such speed, of course, would make HP’s 3D printing a distinct rival of plastics injection molding.

Forrester Research analyst Sophia Vargas called HP’s machine great for plastics printing but noted that “the company hasn’t yet proven it can work with metals and other materials.”

When confronted with a potential range of prices for the new machines between $150,000 to $500,000 apiece, Nigro indicated that HP would direct pricing toward the lower end of that range.

HP will begin its foray into 3D printing beginning in 2015 with some of its bigger clients.

Arrival of the ‘blended reality ecosystem’

Every 3D printer needs a design engine that begins the process of taking any design concept through to exacting CAD/CAM instructions for the printer to follow. HP’s solution to that design process was to create a brand new immersive dual-screen computing platform called Sprout. HP calls Sprout a “blended reality ecosystem, which needs to be seen to be appreciated.”

USA Today reported that Sprout “incorporates a desktop Windows 8.1 PC with a terabyte of storage, an Intel i7 processor, and a 23-in. HD touchscreen display. Hanging out over the front is an armature called the Sprout Illuminator, which combines a scanner, depth sensor, high-resolution camera and projector.”

“It can project images onto a flexible 20-inch touch mat that serves as a second screen in this elaborate setup,” the newspaper said. “Flexible circuits are built under the mat. The Illuminator can produce digital representations of 3-D objects that you place on the mat, including something as ordinary as a potato.”

HP said that the machine will go on sale for $1899 on Nov. 9.