According to a report from McKinsey, “3D printing’s economic impact could reach $500 billion annually by 2025…” There have been reports like this for years now, and that’s probably why in the last few years it seemed like everyone was coming out with their own printer. However, they all seemed like similar fused-filament fabrication machines—a process of extruding melted plastic into a part in layers. There was a lot of hype, but the tolerances, repeatability, and materials—with a few exceptions—seem similar. So when Hewlett-Packard first said it was entering the market, I wasn’t too excited.
However, after seeing what they came up with I changed my mind. The process looked sound, but I don’t get the opportunity to work with the machines day to day. It can be hard to tell the difference between marketing and application. Fortunately, I was recently able to speak with one of the early adopters about this new printer, and apparently I should have been more excited about it.
Straight From the Engineers
Proto Labs is known for generating molds, parts, prototypes, and low-volume parts (generally anything under 10,000 units). They have a quick turnaround time of anywhere from days to weeks, and were one of the first to have access to HP’s printer with Multi Jet Fusion technology. Proto Labs application engineer Eric Utley had the following to say:
“As time goes on, engineers will start to use features like the ones offered by HP to be more creative. I saw a gear printed with an HP printer using different colored layers. When the color changed, it indicated wear so that a technician knows when it needs to be replaced. Better yet, they printed the barcode right on the part. When the wear color shows, they simply scan the barcode to order another one.
“I think some of the hype has calmed and 3D printing has really found a home. However, I also think we aren’t done seeing all of the awesome things we can do by advancing the process and materials. Furthermore, as designers start realizing what is possible with 3D printing, innovative and creative solutions alone will accelerate this industry.”
The Multi Jet Fusion process is capable of producing complex parts such as this hinge with built-in clip features.
HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology uses an inkjet array to apply fusing and detailing agents across a bed of nylon powder, which is then fused by heating elements into a solid layer. The technology’s unique approach to binding powder results in more isotropic material properties, faster build speeds, and, ultimately, lower costs compared to other powder-based 3D printing processes.
HP’s technology offers different materials properties and can even print springs.
“Before introducing any manufacturing process at Proto Labs, we execute thorough testing to develop a repeatable process and ensure we can meet our quality standards,” says Greg Thompson, global product manager of 3D printing at Proto Labs. “We are extremely confident with the feature resolution and quality surface finishes we have seen with HP’s Multi Jet Fusion and are excited to offer our customers another tool to accelerate product development and reduce manufacturing costs.”
With the ability to automate the process, offer a high-end printer at a competitive price, and increase printing speed by as much as 10 times, HP’s 3D printing process is starting to be accepted by other large manufacturing companies. I feel these comments from Proto Labs tell us that HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology is not just another printer, and will be a strong contender looking to grow and capture more market share either through developing its own technology or through acquisitions and strategic partnerships.