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HP Hopes 3D Printers Will Revive Its Business

May 17, 2016, 12:30 PM UTC

HP Inc. is pushing into an entirely new direction that it hopes will revive the company’s slumping fortunes.

The personal computer and printing giant said on Tuesday that it plans to sell two 3D printers for business customers to create prototypes and larger batches of items like small clamps for controlling the amount of liquid flowing through hoses.

Unlike many of the 3D printers available from startups like Formlabs and MakerBot, HP is not targeting consumers. Instead it is betting on the industrial market that it hopes has a bigger appetite for pricy 3D printing equipment.

The company’s lower end 3200 printer will sell for $130,000, or $155,000 if customers want extra post-processing software and other tools. The 4200 model, which can be used to print 3D objects in bulk, will retail for over $200,000 depending on configuration, HP said.

HP’s sales have been steadily declining over the years as the market for its core products—personal computers and standard printers—has shrunk. The company has been banking on 3D printing reviving the company, which last year split from its data center and business software specialist sibling, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE).

HP’s CEO Dion Weisler recently told Fortune</em> HP wants to eventually tap into the $12 trillion injection molding market. Manufactures often use injection molding machinery to craft hundreds of thousands of objects like car dashboards from molten metals or plastics that are loaded into custom molds.

HP (HPQ) claims that its new printer, first mentioned as a future product in 2014, is faster and cheaper than other 3D printers targeting the industrial manufacturing sector. Some of those competing products sold by industrial printing vendors like EOS and Stratasys can retail for as much as $700,000, which includes installation and service contracts. However, those companies have been selling heavy-duty 3D printers much longer than HP and have already seized a large market share, raising questions about whether HP is too late.

3D printed pin. HP Inc.
HP, Inc.

Terry Wohlers, a 3D printing analyst at Wohlers Associates, sounded an optimistic note for HP in an email to Fortune. Although it’s debatable whether HP should have introduced a printer sooner, “interest and investment in 3D printing are currently at an all-time high, so HP should be able to catch this ‘wave’ and ride it,” he said.

Over the past few years, HP has been developing the printer with input from partners like Nike (NKE), BMW, Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Siemens, and other companies, said Stephen Nigro, HP’s senior vice president of imaging and printing. They gave HP feedback while hoping to learn from HP how 3D printing could be used in their businesses.

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Nigro did not elaborate about what these companies wanted to use 3D printing for. But in the past, Nike, for example, has said that customers would one day design their own shoes online and then visit a Nike store to have them printed out.

Automobile manufactures have also expressed interest in 3D printing techniques. Ford (F), for example, partnered with a 3D printing startup Carbon (formerly known as Carbon3D) to develop 3D printed prototypes like the rubber connectors used to cover wiring inside car doors.

Whereas Carbon’s 3D printing technology requires specialized resins and a combination of light and oxygen to create chemical reactions to grow a 3D printed object from a liquid pool of materials, HP’s device uses more conventional ingredients like nylon, said Nigro. Eventually the device will be able to print objects using polypropylene, which is used to make common items like small food containers and plastic soda bottles.

HP’s 3D printers use a variation of proprietary thermal inkjet array technology used for standard printing that’s been adjusted for 3D printed objects that can be made layer by layer inside the machines.

Nigro said that unlike some 3D printers that are designed to create prototypes, HP’s 3D printer, specifically the 4200 model, could be used to develop several thousand objects at a time. Still, when compared to traditional injection molding techniques, the device is not suited for mass production. However, Nigro said HP is still developing the technology, which one day be used to better handle bigger product runs.

Although Nigro said he didn’t want to over promise about the number of objects the printer could pump out when compared to traditional injection molding techniques, he said that under the “right situations” the printer can handle some tasks that are traditionally accomplished with injection molding.

HP’s 3D printing technology can produce objects with high enough quality that they could be used to build bigger products, Nigro said. For example, Nigro said that some of the components like the gears used inside its new 3D printers were produced by some of the 3D printers themselves.

“If I’m making a part for a printer, what we have is good enough,” Nigro said.

Example of 3D printed mesh material. HP Inc.
HP, Inc.

For 3D printed objects that require a more refined printing job or a custom design, like a hearing aid that is built to fit, a more specialized 3D printer may be more appropriate, Nigro said.

Although it’s a milestone in itself that HP finally unveiled its 3D printer, analyst Joe Kempton of the research firm Canalys told Fortune in an email that “HP still has a long way to go. Kempton argued that the new printer is “unique and exciting” but because it hasn’t shipped yet, it’s impossible to know whether it lives up to HP’s marketing claims about speed and reliability.

Additionally, manufacturers are looking to produce 3D printed objects with metals, and HP’s printer currently does not print with metals, Kempton explained.

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“Additional materials are still unavailable, as is the ability to print in full color, although HP has promised these features in future iterations,” wrote Kempton. “As such, some of its competitors, which can employ these features, are safe in this area, at least for now.”

The HP Jet Fusion 3D 4200 Printer will be delivered to customers in late 2016 while the HP Jet 
Fusion 3D 3200 Printer will ship in 2017. Both are available through HP’s website.