The 800-pound gorilla has awoken: Hewlett-Packard Company (HPQ 0.76%) will enter the 3D printing market in 2016, armed with a homegrown 3D printing technology for the industrial segment that it's calling Multi Jet Fusion. 3D printing stocks initially sold off on the news.
Multi Jet Fusion leverages HP's decades of 2D printing expertise with manipulating different types of droplets precisely, accurately, and quickly. HP believes this competency "gives HP Multi Jet Fusion technology a versatility and potential not found in other 3D printing technologies." Terry Wohlers, President of 3D printing industry insights firm Wohlers Associates, shared a similar sentiment:
How Multi Jet Fusion works
On a high level, Multi Jet Fusion is a layer-by-layer manufacturing process that uses an HP thermal inkjet carriage to lay down a series of fusing and detailing chemical agents over a layer of powder. A second carriage then makes a pass, hits the chemical agents with an energy source to fuse the layer to the previous layer, and also deposits a fresh layer of powder to repeat the process.
Here's a cross-section of HP's Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing process:
Multi Jet Fusion can simultaneously utilize up to 10,000 inkjet nozzles, capable of printing over 30 million drops per second across each inch of the build area, with a five-micron tolerance. In practical terms, HP claims its use of inkjet nozzles makes Multi Jet Fusion up to 10 times faster than leading selective laser sintering and extrusion-based 3D printers -- which are limited by the fact that they rely on the need for focused energy at a single point. As you can see in the video below, Multi Jet Fusion doesn't appear to sacrifice strength or quality at the expense of speed.
The grand vision
Longer term, HP envisions Multi Fusion Technology becoming a dynamic 3D printing platform that takes advantage of materials beyond thermal plastics and makes use of new chemical agents that allow products to be manufactured like never before. The ability to modify color, elasticity, texture, strength, detail, and electrical and thermal conductivity -- within a single 3D-printed part -- at the voxel (3D pixel) level -- are all within the realm of what's possible with Multi Jet Fusion. HP is currently investigating whether the technology will be well suited for 3D printing with ceramics and metals, and has also invited select customers to help accelerate its development.
In other words, there are potentially many expansion opportunities for Multi Jet Fusion to grow into a highly dynamic 3D printing platform, whereby a single 3D printer can fluidly handle a diverse range of materials, which would be unlike any other 3D printing technology that exists today. Leading 3D printing technologies like material extrusion and selective laser sintering are often only suited for a handful of materials, and switching between materials in a single machine isn't practical or efficient from an operational standpoint. In fact, 3D printing service bureau Sculpteo tends to purchase new 3D printers when it brings new materials online.
What it means for 3D printing stocks
Although HP hasn't set a price for its upcoming 3D printer, it's expected to cost on the lower end of the $150,000-$500,000 range that industrial 3D printers typically cost. As a near-term value proposition, HP's Multi Jet Fusion technology is addressing one of the biggest drawbacks of 3D printing: It's slow as molasses.
From this perspective, it's almost a no-brainer for 3D printing service bureaus to invest in HP's 3D printer, because it'll help the bureau's customers bring products to market faster by further accelerating the product design process. Additionally, if HP can deliver on some of the future possibilities that Multi Jet Fusion offers, it may even help drive 3D printing adoption to new heights, especially in areas around finished goods manufacturing.
While HP entering the 3D printing market adds legitimacy to the industry and may provide a benefit to 3D Systems Corporation and Stratasys, Ltd., I think 3D printing investors shouldn't discount being in direct competition with HP, which could prove to be a risky endeavor. After all, HP has more than four times the cash that the worldwide 3D printing industry generated in revenues last year.
Although it's possible that HP's competitors will introduce 3D printers that offer a similar value proposition to HP's Multi Jet Fusion, it's still too early to tell how HP's entrance may reshape the industry and what kind of impact it may have on 3D printing stocks. No matter what the future holds, investors should consider watching product revenues from 3D printing stocks in the quarters ahead of HP's official debut, because it may provide early indications about the kind of influence the tech giant may have on the industry.