3D printing could become faster, cheaper and more efficient with Hewlett-Packard entering the market.
Though it shied away from announcing specific product plans, HP this week shed light on its work in 3D printing technology. The company, with its rich history in the market, will most likely spark growth in 3D printing, a 20-year-old industry marred by technical and support issues.
At an event Wednesday in New York, HP said it expects its first 3D printer to arrive in 2016. The company said its technology will spur competition and speed up the pace of development in the field, reducing costs and leading to faster 3D printer operation.
HP's 3D printers will be targeted at enterprises, much like the company's large-format printers, which are used to make billboards and posters. Unlike the current crop of HP printers, however, the upcoming 3D products are being designed to produce a wide range of functional objects and industrial components.
Analysts who have seen HP's 3D printing technology in action agree that it will force competitors to offer better products and services. Many current machines are made using years-old technology.
"I've seen laboratory prototypes. It will be disruptive, because it has potential for high-quality parts production, and very fast," said Pete Basiliere, research director in Gartner's technology and service provider division.
HP could also legitimize and spark growth in the 3D printing industry, and more competition is good for prices and the quality of products, said Terry Wohlers, president and principal consultant at Wohlers Associates.
"It is the first time for a very big corporation to endorse the 3D printing area. It speaks to the future of the industry," Wohlers said.
For desktop 3D printing company MakerBot, competition will be good, and more entrants in the 3D printing market indicates the company is on to something big. MakerBot brought 3D printing into the public spotlight when it was formed in 2009.
"The fact that traditional companies like HP see 3D printing as a growing opportunity is very exciting to us," said Jenny Lawton, acting CEO of MakerBot.
3D printers have been used to make consumer products like toys, smartphone cases, jewelry, medical devices, guns, toothbrushes, helmets and robots. Consumer 3D printing bears some resemblance to the copier market, with people going to a store for bigger projects rather than doing in-home printing with expensive devices. Staples is offering 3D printing services at some stores and UPS has launched a similar service in some U.S. markets.
3D printers have also been used in industry, to make a variety of equipment including aircraft, automobile, spacecraft and satellite parts. HP says as its technology speeds up and reduces the cost of production, it will help 3D printers supplant conventional machines to make parts and equipment.
For Jerry Castanos, who runs 3D Heights, a 3D printer store in New York, HP will bring immediate legitimacy to the 3D printing industry.
"It is going to have an impact. 3D printing is going to go mainstream even more," said Castanos, who uses industrial 3D printers to make models and objects for customers.
If HP meets its technology goals and leverages its strong distribution and support network, it will force competitors to lower prices and raise the speed and quality of printing, Castanos agreed.
3D printing has already reduced the cost of making parts for commercial customers, but there is room for further price reductions, Wohlers said.
"In some ways the industry has been a bit too relaxed and not as motivated as some customers may have liked in terms of price-performance ratio," Wohlers said.
3D printing industry revenue totaled US$3.07 billion in 2013 and is expected to quadruple by 2018, according to Wohlers. HP's products haven't yet been factored into the forecast, but Wohlers believes HP could immediately expand the industry. He'll factor in HP products into the next forecast. The top players in the 3D printing market today include 3D Systems and Stratasys.
HP's new Multi Jet technology draws on conventional 3D printing technology, but uses new techniques and materials. The process of making a 3D object starts with placing material -- also called powder -- on a surface. The material is fused by a fluid jetted out by the print head. A heating source located around the print head helps solidify the object, and a second material is deposited to enhance the finish and surface of the 3D object. The process is repeated multiple times.
The exact technology behind HP's fusing agents and heat source remains a mystery, but the company's 3D printing technology draws from conventional binder-jetting and laser-sintering techniques, which are still prevalent in 3D printing.
Binder-jetting involves using specific types of ink and colorant to merge and make objects, and was commercialized in the 1990s by Z Corp., which was ultimately acquired by 3D Systems. Laser-sintering involves using laser beams on the powder to heat up and fuse materials. HP says its technology will produce parts at "10 times the build speed and at breakthrough economics," compared to laser-sintering technology.
HP's business plans for the 3D printing market remain unknown. If the fluid technology is proprietary, the business model may resemble HP's conventional printing business, which makes money by selling ink cartridges and printers.
"I don't think HP has sorted that out," Gartner's Basiliere said. "It's too early to say if it'll be a closed model like in consumer."
HP is also working with companies like Adobe and Microsoft to design models for 3D content, which will help streamline the process of object creation, analysts said.
HP's entry into the 3D market may spawn more service providers and new players, but the company will have to figure out whether it wants to cooperate with competitors or go solo, which may have its own set of challenges.
"I won't be surprised if we see more 3D printer providers come to the market -- some with technologies different enough that don't infringe on [HP's] patents," said Gartner's Basiliere.