The highly anticipated day in the 3D printing world arrived on Tuesday, when 2D-printing king HP Inc. (HPQ 1.29%) unveiled at RAPID, one of the world's largest industry conferences, its speedy polymer commercial 3D printer, the Jet Fusion 3D 3200. The company's now taking orders for the 3200, which will be available in late 2016, while its more powerful sibling, the 4200, will follow in 2017. It also announced a bevy of A-list partners, including Nike (NKE 0.03%) and BMW (BAMXF 0.41%).
The Jet Fusion 3200 is reportedly up to 10 times faster than printers powered by the leading 3D-printing technologies, fused deposition modeling (FDM) and selective laser sintering (SLS). It's also reportedly the first commercial 3D printer based on an open software and materials platform. So HP's business model is markedly different than the proprietary razor-and-blades-like model employed by leading 3D printing companies 3D Systems Corporation (DDD -0.25%) and Stratasys Ltd. (SSYS -1.26%).
Here's what investors in 3D Systems, Stratasys, and other 3D printing stocks should know.
HP's Jet Fusion 3D 3200 and 4200
HP is touting its Jet Fusion 3200 printer as ideal for prototyping, and the more powerful 4200 for prototyping and short-run manufacturing applications. The 4200 is fast enough to meet same-day production demands, according to HP. Beyond being speedy, these 3D printers sport high precision and resolution capabilities -- with brilliant color capabilities on the docket. The company offers software, a processing station with fast cooling, and materials for both models.
Pricing for the Jet Fusion 3D 3200 printer starts at $130,000, while the full solution (which includes the processing station) starts at $155,000.
While HP plans to expand its materials offerings, only one material is now available, according to the spec sheet -- PA12 (polyamide 12), commonly called Nylon 12. Moreover, this material currently only comes in black. (And no, this hasn't been well publicized or reported.)
Nylon 12 is an engineering thermoplastic that's tough. It can be used to produce components that need to withstand high vibration, repetitive stress, fatigue, and/or chemical exposure.
Multi Jet Fusion's secret sauce: Voxel-level printing
HP's MJF tech owes its superior speed and other standout features to the fact that it prints at the individual voxel level. (A voxel is the 3D equivalent of a 2D pixel in traditional printing.) Voxel-level printing will allow for limitless combinations of colors and materials, providing customers with unprecedented customization capabilities, according to HP.
The company believes unique applications lie on the horizon, providing the following examples as possibilities:
- Printing with embedded intelligence, like sensors in parts, as part of the Internet of Things.
- Printing of parts with embedded information, like invisible traces or codes, to deliver a future of increased security and tracking for reinventing supply chains.
"Our 3D printing platform is unique in its ability to address over 340 million voxels per second, versus one point at a time, giving our prototyping and manufacturing partners radically faster build speeds, functional parts and breakthrough economics," said Stephen Nigro, president of HP's 3D printing business.
A-list partners and target markets
HP's list of partners includes Nike, BMW, Autodesk, Jabil Circuit, Johnson & Johnson, Materialise, Proto Labs, Shapeways, and Siemens. All but Shapeways, a 3D-printing services operation, are publicly traded. So some developments arising from these partnerships could interest investors.
Athletic apparel and shoe goliath Nike has used 3D printing for prototyping for many years, and announced last November that it planned to expand its use of this innovative tech. Top management said that custom 3D-printed athletic shoes -- beyond extremely limited-edition ones for pro athletes -- are on the horizon.
German luxury automaker BMW has long used the tech for prototyping in concept cars and approval builds. It said in HP's press release that it sees major potential in the partnership for its "future roadmap toward serial part production and personal customization."
Healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson is exploring the use of 3D printing in its medical-devices business, and announced in January that it's collaborating with start-up Carbon (formerly Carbon3D) to develop custom 3D-printed surgical devices. (To great fanfare, Carbon launched its super-fast M1 3D printer, powered by its compelling Continuous Liquid Interface Production tech, last month.)
Rounding out manufacturing partners are Jabil, one of the world's largest contract manufacturers, and Proto Labs, a quick-turn contract manufacturer focused on prototyping and short-run production. Jabil made news last month when Stratasys' MakerBot announced that it had contracted with the company to produce its desktop 3D printers.
The team-ups with ProtoLabs, Jabil, and Shapeways reflect HP's targeting of 3D-printing services operations. (It's also targeting model shops.) These businesses are "technology agnostic" -- their top interest is having the best equipment available for their customers' needs.
These partnerships could eat into Stratasys' and 3D Systems' businesses, as some jobs that used to be produced on their printers could transition to HP's 3D printers. Moreover, 3D Systems and Stratasys also have significant 3D-printing services operations; it should be interesting to see whether either, or both, eventually include HP 3D printers in their facilities.
Open platform could unleash 3D printing adoption and innovation
HP's Jet Fusion 3D printers are built on an open software and materials platform, which the company believes will help drive 3D-printing adoption by lowering costs and unleashing innovation.
The company is creating a 3D-material app store, and is currently collaborating with certified partners, including Arkema, BASF, Evonik, and Lehmann & Voss, and plans to further open up its ecosystem. On the software end, HP worked with industry leaders Autodesk, Materialise, and Siemens to make the design-to-print process easier and more intuitive. 3D-printing software is currently getting much-needed increased attention, with Stratasys, for example, announcing this week a stepped-up new software initiative.
HP's open-platform business model differs from the proprietary razor-and-blades-like model employed by 3D Systems and Stratasys. Such a model results in an outsize percentage -- relative to revenue -- of profits generated from sales of materials, or "blades." These models can be lucrative when they're working well, but they can stumble when disruptors enter the market with a compelling "razor" that uses less-expensive "blades."
HP's Jet Fusion 3D printers appear to provide the company with the potential to take some business away from 3D Systems and Stratasys, both of which are heavily involved in the polymer 3D-prototyping market, and to a lesser degree, in the short-run production space. Given their relative fast speeds, they also could increase the size of the entire market, as speed has been a top hurdle holding 3D printing back from expanding beyond prototyping into a greater array of manufacturing applications.
While HP's Multi Jet Fusion tech appears to have major disruptive potential, it doesn't seem likely that any single 3D-printing technology will ever be the best fit for all applications involving polymers. We'll need to wait to see how satisfied early-paying customers are with HP's 3D printer, and how well the company executes to draw more definitive conclusions. Investors, however, shouldn't underestimate HP's threat, especially given its very deep pockets.