HP has revealed that they intend to enter the metal 3D printing business with their MetalJet technology. The company expects its printers to be on the market in two years. In advance of this, they will launch a 3D printing for metal parts service in 2019. The company is also working with select partners such as Volkswagen, Primo Metal Group, Okay Technologies, Wilo and Johnson & Johnson. Right now key partners GKN and Parmatech are using MetalJet. These marquee customers will already have HP metal 3D printers at their sites. For Volkswagen the company is producing limited mass customized parts today and expects functional parts in 2019 and critical parts after 2021 (those that have to pass safety review and certification). The company expects to offer the system to the market in 2020 and for the systems to be widely available in 2021.
The company will first be printing stainless steel parts. In a press briefing in advance of the media release the company disclosed that it will target manufacturing applications with its metal printing technology. Its binder based metal 3D printers will initially have a build volume of 430 X 320 X 200 mm and the company claims that they will be 50 times more productive than existing metal printers. The printers will cost $399,000 which is significantly cheaper than existing DMLS and other metal printing systems. The company also says that existing injection molding and regular powders could be used as feedstock which would dramatically reduce part cost.
The HP metal printing technology works by spreading out powder in a layer, print agents are then dispersed onto this layer and it is cured. Later the part is put into a furnace to sinter it. The company says that the parts can have Ra’s of between 4 to 7 of the machine which would be a good surface quality for many manufactured parts. The company claims Mpa’s of over 200 on Yield and a UTS of over 500 Mpa. The company says that it will have parts with less than 0.5% porosity that are 98% dense.
Example parts the company has shared include small automotive parts and parts for the medical device industry. It thinks that break-even points for small stainless steel parts are around 60,000 units and that individual metal part costs it is targetting are around $1 to $3. This is a broad move away from the high value high part cost strategies that other firms are employing by targetting aerospace and medical applications. DMLS, Powder Bed Fusion companies are most at home at $100 to $500 parts or parts that are many thousands of dollars but fulfill critical roles such as being injection chambers on rocket engines. By going for lower part cost HP is targetting a very high volume market of making “regular” inexpensive parts that are made through a variety of other means such as metal injection molding, stamping, CNC, waterjet etc. This volume-based strategy is exactly what the large automakers are exploring currently.
Car manufacturers want to use 3D printing in metals and polymers. Mass customization but also complex inexpensive parts and labor-saving parts, as well as weight saving parts, are of interest to them,. The German car manufacturers VW, BMW and Daimler have a huge lead over everyone else in understanding 3D printing and implementing it in cars. VW now lurches into the lead by getting early access to MetalJet. The promise of metal 3D printing was always there the cost picture not so much. If HP pulls this off then it could be huge. The company, however, will have to deal with a lot of newfound competition as well as the established metal printing guard.
It was clear for a while that HP’s ultimate goal would be to 3D print metal parts. By going after low-cost parts that are made in their tens of millions the company shows that they want to pursue a large installed base across manufacturing in many industries. No newfangled titanium or pipe dream parts here were going to be printing the pins, handles, housings and all the metal parts that surround us. This is a volume play and gives companies such as EOS and GE time to focus and entrench themselves in aerospace where they will be aiming to get themselves specced for parts while simultaneously pursuing more opportunities in orthopedics. Strategically HP is shying away from aerospace and orthopedics markets and targeting a much larger volume space below it. This will mean lower margins and fewer barriers to entry but they may be conceding a race they’ve lost for now anyway. At the same time, the company can use its existing channel to aggressively pursue general manufacturing companies. Meanwhile, they probably hope that an aggressive and public move by them will reduce the chance of recent metal printing upstarts building up revenue. HP should be able to sell a lot of these systems to an eager market. The opportunity to be the trusted partner to manufacturers worldwide is HP’s for the taking with this aggressive move into manufacturing. However before we declare the winners while the race is still being run, do note that the company is now announcing something that it will make generally available on the market in 2021. A lot can still happen between now and then and we will have to be patient to see how the technology performs in the wild but new 3D printing head Christoph Schell sure seems to have hit the ground running.