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Open Materials Development Will Be Key for HP's Success in 3D Printing

Lux Research

HP can make a big splash in 3D printing, but it needs to shore up technology claims and avoid the temptation of the razor/razor blade business model in order to flourish

BOSTON, MA – November 11, 2014 – Hewlett-Packard (HP) recently released a white paper detailing its planned 3D printer. HP’s "Multi Jet Fusion" system claims a tenfold increase in build speed, improved part quality with controllable properties like color, elasticity and strength, and better "economics" than current offerings. HP's accompanying press release said the printers would be available in 2016.

Along with its decision to split into two companies, this move into the 3D printing space would appear geared at turning around the company’s financial fortunes and reversing a declining culture of innovation. However, to maximize its opportunity, it will need to avoid importing innovation-unfriendly practices from its conventional printer businesses.

“However lucrative it might be for an established inkjet printer business, the emerging field of 3D printing will reward more open material models, like the one that 3D printer company Arcam used to break into aerospace and medical device markets,”  said Ross Kozarsky, Lux Research Senior Analyst covering Advanced Materials.  “HP should avoid the shortsighted razor/blade business model – already employed by the likes of 3D Systems, Stratasys, and EOS – which prioritizes next quarter’s profits over innovation and long term growth.” 

What's more, a closer reading of the white paper reveals reasons for caution about the hype for HP's performance claims, in several key areas:

  • Speed and part precision. HP is not the first to try to improve printer throughput; technologies like Loughborough University’s High Speed Sintering (HSS) printer have achieved similar tenfold improvement in print speed. However, the tradeoff is part precision, as printed parts require post-processing to achieve surface quality – HP’s printer will likely also feature quality trade-offs.

  • Part properties. HP’s white paper contains a laundry list of impressive properties that the new printer will be able to control: surface roughness, friction, opacity, color, and electrical and thermal conductivity. There is a catch, however; reading the footnotes reveals that these are just possibilities, and not all have been selected for inclusion in the first generation of printers. At this time, HP has only demonstrated parts with multiple colors, which is likely the only capability that will make it into the 2016 model printers.

  • Economics. HP compares its offerings only to expensive selective laser sintering (SLS) printers like those of 3D Systems or EOS, that range in price from $200,000 to $1.2 million. Meanwhile, companies like Z Corp (now owned by 3D Systems) offer printers cheaper than $40,000, which would make HP's look far less favorable in comparison. HP also gives no estimate of material or binder costs, a critical input for total cost of ownership.

Despite these significant questions regarding the value proposition of the Multi Jet Fusion, HP’s entry into the 3D printing space remains significant as it is sure to attract attention and catalyze innovation and investment activity industry-wide. If HP can deliver on refining its hardware technology and allow material experts to help it push the envelope with an open model, it can play a key role in bringing 3D printing mainstream. Until then, HP’s claims of revolutionizing the 3D printing space will remain as flimsy as the paper they are printed on.