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HP Revolutionizes Manufacturing With Metal 3D Printer

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I’m at IMTS (International Manufacturer’s Technology Show) this week, which is the premier show in additive manufacturing. HP is up on stage talking about their 3D printing progress.  Manufacturing is a $12B industry and 3D printing, which is growing at 25%, is just a small segment of this today.  But advancements are coming fast and furious. 

For instance, yesterday HP announced the launch of their metal 3D printer, the HP Metal Jet. This is a big step, because plastics can be used for production but are often, when 3D printed, best for prototyping. Metals, being generally more robust (and more common in manufacturing today), can be better used in production. 

I think this is the beginning of something really big, but the industry (manufacturing) is waiting for the definitive example of change and HP has the potential to create it. 

Current Industry

Currently the manufacturing industry is massively dominated by iron and steel, so being able to print in the materials most in use is a critical advancement.  The method used to manufacture metal largely go back 5,000 years and it is called investment casting, while laser metal sintering, the newest in a production manufacturing method, remains a small fraction of the industry (and is wicked expensive).  That being said, there is a broad variety of manufacturing methods in use and 3D printing will likely disrupt all of them. 

HP Metal Jet

HP’s new Metal Jet printers take 20 hours out of the production time compared to metal injection molding. Their process is also cheaper than Metal Injection Molding, and an order of magnitude cheaper than laser metal manufacturing.  Inspire, a testing institute in Switzerland, attested to the fact the resulting quality is as good or better than the other methods. It’s also impressively fast with production speed approaching 50x other alternatives.  Cost for the printer isn’t cheap, coming in at just short of $400K.  

It is interesting to note that HP’s printing speed for their 3D printers has been doubling every 18 months suggesting that, in a few short years, we could have very high speed factories that are largely 3D printers. Oh, one interesting thing: apparently the 3D printed metal parts are around 40% lighter than their more traditional alternatives. For automotive, which is moving to electric, that weight savings alone is huge.  

HP’s plastic printers have been out for a while and customers at the show who used them indicated they were getting around 60% cost savings while production times have dropped from two weeks to 1-2 days for custom parts. For an industry that aggressively drives lower costs and gets excited about a few percentage points in cost reduction, 60% is a game changer.  

Primary Target Industries

Primary target industries, at least initially, appear to be automotive and medical industries, both of which are undergoing significant advancement themselves. Driving the change in the automotive industry is the pivot to electric cars, and in medical equipment the massive push to reduce medical cost and to bring out over more efficient and cost effective medical hardware. 

A large powdered metal manufacturer, GKN, stepped up on stage and indicated they were surprised how good the HP solution was. They, GKN, do about $1.5B in business annually and they are moving aggressively to this next generation of 3D printed production parts. Benefits for this new high speed manufacturing method in metal include design freedom, weight reduction, time to market, and more scalable production. 

A VW executive then came up on stage. VW is aggressively using the resulting parts from GKN broadly throughout their cars and they see this technology as  huge competitive advantage for them. I expect, given the weight change and VW’s pivot from diesel to electric vehicles which compete on range (and thus are aggressively designed around fuel efficiency ad range), this is a game changer. 

VW has a plan to use this technology far more broadly over time to improve both production speed. Their goals is to more rapidly match emerging customer needs with automobiles that can be more tightly customized for these customers.  The rep held up production parts and testified that they were not only faster and easier to manufacture, they outperformed their more traditionally manufactured alternatives. While the process today is mostly used for customized parts, by 2021 VW expects 3D Printing to be widely used throughout VW broadly.   

A number of medical companies and the manufacturing companies that use HP’s 3D printers were presented, validating the 50x performance increase and related benefits (cost reduction, time to market etc.). They think this will change the world. It will certainly change the speed in which a new medical device comes to market. 

Wrapping Up: This Is Huge

Disruption is becoming very common in the technology industry, so those of us that cover it can become jaded.  But this latest move by HP and the 3D industry in general promises to massively change the dynamics of manufacturing. 

The historic problem for the industry is the extended time from design to  manufacturing as tooling is ramped up and parts suppliers are put under contract, brought up to speed, and integrated into the supply chain.  3D printing, particularly metal 3D printing, eliminates this for a broad spectrum of parts, shortening massively the time to market and allowing for far higher customization at scale than we have ever experienced.  

In manufacturing, 3D printing represents what should be the biggest revolution since Winchester and Ford introduced manufacturing assembly lines.   This won’t happen over night, with estimates of about 5% of the parts being made (metal) in 5 years. But people often underestimate revolutions like this. 

I expect, in about a decade, that electric, self-driving, car you buy will mostly be printed. The only question for me: how much of that printing will be done at the dealership as opposed to as it is now in a central manufacturing site.  I can imagine a rolling generic foundational car from the manufacturer that is largely customized by the dealership.  Even the tires may be printed by then. 

Walking around this show I saw a lot of individual parts but little in the way of cohesive vision that spells out the manufacturing plant of the future speeding up adoption and increasing the synergy between the vendors.  I think HP could be the company to do this. If HP steps up, we could eventually see an HP factory in a box (a very big box).  Something to think about. 

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