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Hewlett-Packard dives late into 3D printing game

30 Oct 2014  | Rick Merritt

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Hewlett-Packard outlined its vision for 3D printers, and unveiled a novel 3D workstation geared for advance hobbyist as part of its "Blended Reality" ecosystem. While strategic in itself, the initiative may well be juvenile for the heavy-footed computer and printing giant, which took too much time to serve a market that has so aggressively staked out the grey space between digital and physical worlds.

HP released a whitepaper describing plans for 3D printers it hopes to ship in 2016. The HP Multi Jet Fusion systems leverage arrays of the company's thermal inkjet modules in an effort to create printers 10 times faster and more flexible than today's models.

The company also announced Sprout, a 3D workstation that integrates a scanner with a 3D depth sensor as well as a touch-screen display and touch-sensitive mat. Sprout will go on sale in early November for about $1,900.

While the workstation captured much of the initial press attention, the 3D printing effort has broader implications. HP aims to disrupt the rapidly emerging 3D printing sector with systems that more quickly make a wider range of stronger and more detailed objects. Ultimately, it hopes to enable 3D-printed objects that can exhibit a mix of physical properties including sharp, smooth edges using all the colours available in its existing 2D printers.

HP is making versions of its 3D printers available to select partners and customers, but has no plans for a general release of products until 2016. The extended test period suggests the systems still exhibit subpar performance, at least in some parameters. Its whitepaper noted its systems will require the industry to define and adopt a new printing file format beyond today's STL to achieve its speed, flexibility, and strength goals.


HP provided this image of one possible industrial design for one of its pending 3D printers.

HP's Multi Jet Fusion will use arrays of its thermal inkjets mounted on moveable carriages to apply an assortment of fusing, detailing, and transforming agents including inks and other agents the company did not describe. They can deliver up to 30 million drops per second, controllable down to depositing individual droplets.

The arrays will cover working areas from 4.25-inch to 40-inch wide initially using the kinds of thermoplastic materials common today. However, HP researchers also "are investigating" metallic and ceramic materials.

"HP Multi Jet Fusion is designed to transform manufacturing across industries by delivering on the full potential of 3D printing with better quality, increased productivity, and break-through economics," said Stephen Nigro, senior vice president of HP's inkjet and graphics group, in a statement in HP's press materials.

HP is playing catchup with 3D systems that have captured the attention of professionals doing rapid prototyping as well as a swelling "maker" movement of hobbyists. It remains to be seen whether one of the world's biggest printer makers can leapfrog competition while it goes through a historic corporate split announced earlier this month. (Read the full story: HP announces split, adds 5,000 layoffs)

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