Invent Medical put the company on hold in order to wait for HP's 3D Printing solution.
The worlds of 2D and 3D printing have, in the main, only shared nine letters. Not only are the technologies hugely different but the target markets have been vastly unalike; desktop additive manufacturing devices have been nothing like ink or laser jet printers in terms of adoption or ease-of-use and large format industrial machines from both the 2D and the 3D world are almost polar opposites when it comes to speed. However, a raft of recent news and launches from the biggest companies in the 2D world suggests that the dimensions are becoming increasingly blurred.
During a tour around the Barcelona HQ of HP earlier this year it was evident that the company, which launched its Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) technology at RAPID in May, sees similarities in the routes to market for enterprise 3D printing from its dominance in the ink printing sectors. HP is using its extensive knowledge of successfully bringing digital printing technologies to market in order to leverage deals in the 3D world. The MJF technology is being manufactured, tested and optimised alongside the likes of the Indigo large-format 2D printing press. The gathered media was even shown how parts in HP’s latest large-format 2D printer have been made more efficient using in-house 3D printing.
And it is not just HP that has stepped from the second dimension into the third; Ricoh, Canon and Xaar are three companies famed for their 2D printing technologies that have respectively launched technology, announced an intention to or hired people with the nous to do so. Drupa – the trade show mecca for 2D printing – saw the launch of both Highcon’s Rapid Layer Manufacturing, which essentially turns cardboard sheets into huge three dimensional objects, and that of Massivit’s machine, which is targeted towards the same sectors as HP’s large format printing; advertising and marketing.
Massivit Prints are targetting marketing departments unlike most 3D printers.
“I think a lot of people saw the reticence of major 2D printing companies such as HP and Ricoh to enter the market as a failure on their parts,” says Canalys 3D Printing Analyst Joe Kempton. “I think these companies were extremely cautious with their strategies. While the market was sizeable four or five years ago, it was still lacking some major industrial customers. I think most of these large 2D companies realised that the enterprise space held the most promise.”
These thoughts were echoed in the opening statements of the HP Multi Jet Fusion press day as the company showcased some of the early adopters of the technology, names like Nike, BMW, Siemens, Jabil and Johnson & Johnson flashed across the screen and took to the stage. One name that we hadn’t seen before was that of Invent Medical, CEO Jiri Rosicky was returning from advanced negotiations to invest in another polymer-based 3D printing solution, he was ready to sign on the dotted line when HP announced its intention to launch a 3D printer at the back end of 2014. Jiri put that investment, and essentially his whole company, on hold. A theme, according to Kempton, that is not uncommon.
The trillion dollar question
It’s been written a thousand times, but is worth noting that six years ago HP entered a short-lived pilot with Stratasys that saw the U-Print FDM printers from Stratasys rebranded as ‘HP DesignJet’ series. That scheme seemed to end pretty quickly without much of a fanfare, what wasn’t clear at the time was just how beneficial the experience has proved for a re-entry to market.
“As you know we did an OEM with Stratasys,” Alex Monino HP's Worldwide Marketing and Sales Strategy Director for 3D printing, tells TCT. “We learned the market and wanted to validate some go-to-market hypothesis with that pilot. We are applying those lessons as we move forward. That gap between the pilot and now is because we feel like we did not have something disruptive to really add to the industry, until now.”
The MJF and post-processing station side-by-side.
That technology, MJF, involves heating a bed of powdered plastic (initially PA12) to a temperature below the melting point, applying a fusing agent using HP’s inkjet technologies perfected in 2D printing. The fusing agent lowers the temperature of a selected area and a detailing agent is applied in order to inhibit fusing of further material and then passing infrared lamps over the bed in order to fuse the specified layer. The process is executed in the style one would expect from a Fortune 100 company, with sleek presentation and a thoroughly thought out post-processing station that not only speeds up cooling, allows cleaning of the part but also acts as a material recycling station.
Throughout the two days in Barcelona we heard a great deal about HP’s plans to grow the industry, sound bites like, “We don't want to capture the biggest chunk of the market and not let it grow”, may sound like platitudes of a company with the might HP have behind them but it is all about the numbers. Estimates suggest that the current 3D printing industry stands at about $4 billion, capturing even a significant chunk of that does not represent return on investment for a company who turned over $57 billion in 2014, this is about the longer game.
“We are not entering the market to be a player in a $4 billion market,” Helena Herrero Managing Director of HP Iberia said. “We want to lead the way in taking on the $12 trillion market of manufacturing with 3D printing.”
HP's 3D printing material cartridge system.
Canalys’ Joe Kempton agrees that the lure of the brand names like HP, Ricoh and Canon, names most companies will already be comfortable with, will help them unlock doors where others may have struggled but once HP have wedged those doors open HP’s Alex Monino the whole industry will benefit.
“You will spark thinking and big changes like in companies like Nike or BMW,” says Monino. “No 3D printing technology will be able to do everything. This is why we're taking a very open approach because we believe that we cannot do this alone.”
That open approach has seen them create partnerships with renowned chemists like Arkema for the development of better 3D printing materials and take a driving seat in the 3MF consortium for the creation of a file format that allows voxel level manipulation, which HP sees as vital to the future of MJF technology.
One thing is clear, HP is in this for the long game and the noises coming out of Canon, Ricoh, Xaar, Highcon and Massivit suggest that 2D has finally stepped into the third dimension.