Ever since Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) CEO Meg Whitman announced a year ago that the king of 2D printing would enter the 3D printing market by mid-2014 -- a time frame later pushed back to "late 2014" -- speculation has run rampant. Much of the rumormongering has centered on HP buying out one of the existing 3D printing players, such as 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD), Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS), ExOne, Arcam, or voxeljet. This is despite the fact that Whitman was quoted as saying that HP's 3D printing offering would be "new technology." Other than that tidbit and Whitman specifying that the offering would not be geared to the consumer market, there has not been any information from HP about its 3D printing plans.
Some of the suspense may end on Wednesday. There's buzz that HP's "big unveil" of its initial 3D printing offering will take place at an event the company is hosting in New York City that's being marketed with the tagline "Reimagine the Possibilities."
Regardless of what Wednesday brings, we already can deduce some of HP's 3D printing plans -- or at least its future ambitions -- by an employment ad that it recently placed.
Here's the ad:
Robotics Scientist for 3D Printing
HP Labs' research into printing of inorganic materials is working toward hybrid printing of glass (and other inorganic materials) onto items that are already mass produced. As part of this activity we have a vacancy for someone primarily with experience in robotics, to lead the building of novel prototype robotic platforms that will be used to produce 3D printed structures on the surface of objects that are not planar. In addition to the experience in robot programming the candidates will need to show strong mechatronics skills.
We can glean a few things from this ad. First, the mention of a robotics platform indicates HP might be aiming to enter the longer-run manufacturing space. Currently, 3D printers are almost universally discrete machines that aren't incorporated into manufacturing processes, such as assembly lines. This will change, however, if Project Ara is successful. Ara involves a team-up of 3D Systems and Google to develop a high-speed, continuous, fabrication-grade 3D printing platform to produce Google's customizable, open-source, modular smartphones. The platform has potential implications beyond just Google's phones, as it could be a springboard to other manufacturing applications.
Second, the mention of "hybrid" likely refers to a machine that has both 3D printing and conventional subtractive manufacturing capabilities. Mitsubishi introduced such a hybrid -- the LUMEX Avance-25 -- to the North American market earlier this year. At the time I wrote about this product launch, this machine was reportedly the world's only 3D printer/conventional manufacturing machine hybrid. It has metal 3D printing and high-speed milling capabilities.
Lastly, the 3D printing of glass -- or any material -- "onto items that are already mass produced" and "on the surface of objects that are not planar" would be quite novel. None of the 3D printers manufactured by any of the publicly traded 3D printing companies possess these capabilities. However, privately held Optomec does make a 3D printer that can print metals onto existing nonplanar structures. Its Laser Engineered Net Shaping, or LENS, printer is used by some customers for repairing existing metal components. In addition to its LENS system, the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based company also makes the Aerosol Jet, which prints conductive materials. Optomec has ties with Stratasys, as the two companies teamed on a project a couple of years ago that produced the world's first conventional (plastics, in this case) 3D printing/electronics 3D printing hybrid structure -- a "smart wing" for an unmanned aerial vehicle.
We'll have to wait to see what future details emerge about HP's work on the 3D printing of glass onto existing structures. One application that comes to mind is the printing of glass screens onto variously shaped consumer electronic devices.
The recently placed employment ad suggests that HP Labs is working on developing a unique and ambitious 3D printing technology and platform that involves the printing of glass and other nonorganic materials onto existing, nonplanar structures.
While HP has had well-publicized problems executing in recent years, investors in the 3D printing space shouldn't shrug off the company's entrance into the market. HP has deep pockets, and Meg Whitman has been doing a good job turning the company around. That said, given the growth dynamics of the 3D printing space -- the market is projected to increase in size by sevenfold to more than $21 billion by 2020 -- HP's success in the market wouldn't necessarily equate to trouble for the existing players.