HP is entering the 3D printing market in a big way. The company has just announced that it will launch metal 3D printers and is rolling out more automated 3D printers for polymers. The company is making significant inroads and investments in the technology. The 900-pound elephant in the room in many 3D printing conversations is HP. Everyone wants to know what HP’s plan is and is either trying to get ahead or out of the way of them. The behemoth does $52 Billion in revenue per year which is around three times the revenue of the entire 3D printing industry. HP is new to our industry as well and its technologies sound impressive but are unproven. It seems that the elephant would need to put on its ballet shoes and learn to dance. Rather than wait for the market to quickly grow accustomed to HP, the company has chosen to forge ahead. It has done this in a very intelligent way.

What HP seems to be doing is lining up a team of vendors that collectively present an integrated software and manufacturing solution to the client. It seems that rather than sell machines the company is trying to sell solutions where the HP machine is but one part of the total. By pushing an ecosystem and plugging customers into it the company can leverage partners to make adoption of 3D printing easier and faster. Where with other OEMs a company would have to itself make its own decisions on materials, software, manufacturing companies and other partners with HP it is presented on a silver platter. Rather than go it alone this team driven approach would place a large group of partners in the market which all are pushing HP’s technology. The risk here is that they could get elbowed aside by some partners at one point but the opportunity is for quick adoption of 3D printing using HP. Again the company seems to be chasing manufacturing and a large installed base in several verticals here.

One they are targeting now is orthotics. Orthotics, in my opinion, is the next area where we will see broad adoption of 3D printing in an end-use part application. Orthotics are relatively small and low which is good for making them inexpensive. On top of that orthotics can add value by being a perfect size which 3D printing can do easily. More important still is that unique 3D printed orthotics can also have unique infill and infill patterns. This means that I could have a more dense orthotic than you because I am heavier. Or you could have a more dense part near your toe because you walk with a more springy walk. In this way, people can eventually correct their way of walking while getting a perfect sized orthotic that is perfect for your walk and your walk alone. Orthotics are also relatively high value and you can make cost-competitive orthotics with 3D printing. Orthotics is also a rather fragmented market with margin being distributed and amplified at different stages of the market. Pricing in orthotics is not transparent and there is a lot of manual labor in the manufacturing of orthotics. It is very ripe for disruption and the market is eerily familiar to hearing aids. In that business, within three years everyone that was not using 3D printing to make custom in the ear hearing aids either switched to 3D printing or was wiped out. People kind of see our industry as adorable geeks playing in garages which of course was how HP started. Being underestimated is such a blessing and hopefully, they’ll still do that while we wipe the floor with everyone in conventional manufacturing.

So the garage to giant HP has, in my mind very astutely, decided to tackle orthotics. The way that they’re doing this will be very telling for their future. HP essentially has partnered with Go 4-D. Go 4-D will distribute the HP FitStation 3D foot scanner in the US. They will offer this paired with a manufacturing service to their customers. While the manufacturing will be done by Flowbuilt. The software that ties it all together will come from Materialise. A customer can through one reseller get one complete solution that will take their clients from scan to delivered orthotic. 3D printing delivered simply. 

We interviewed some members of the Go 4-D and HP team to find out more.

Paul Linton the CEO of Go 4-D answered our questions.

What will this do for orthotics users? What material will these be in? Are they durable enough?

The biggest complaint that orthotic end-users have is that the orthotic doesn’t fit in their shoe. The market needs a custom orthotic that is comfortable while providing precise biomechanical control without being bulky or heavy. One of the obstacles that impeded the path to 3D printing custom orthotics was the plastic, which was stiff enough for biomechanical control and durability, but too stiff and heavy to meet the prescriptive requirements of foot specialists and the end user’s needs. Utilizing 3D high reusability PA12 powder on the HP Multi-Jet Fusion 3D printer, Go 4-D produces a lattice-designed orthotic with evidence-based, prescriptive biomechanical control. The unique shape and needs of each person are captured in a lightweight, comfortable, yet durable, orthotic that is easy to wear to maintain an active and pain-free lifestyle.Exactly how durable are these orthotics?

Our custom orthotics are manufactured to the specifications of each patients’ weight and pressure/timing during gait for control, comfort and durability. Each pair of custom orthotics from Go 4-D has a 90-day patient satisfaction guarantee and a 2-year product warranty, with an expected lifespan of 3-5 years dependant on wear and type of use.

Can you do variable density infill?

Variable density infill is one of the key features of the biomechanical lattice-design of our custom orthotics. Using our software, the foot specialist can design the orthotic to have specific segmental stiffness, or flexibility, which is printed by filling the lattice-spaces more or less. Add to this feature, the ability of the foot specialist to add directional stiffness to guide the foot in a preferred path. The ability to add segmental and directional stiffness in a lightweight, lattice-design is simply impossible in manufacturing methods of the past.

Who is Flowbuilt?

The FLOWBUILT mission is to help amplify the potential of world class brands through people-inspired manufacturing. The Flowbuilt team of manufacturing experts brings together experiences from across the globe to deliver state of the art manufacturing, design, and development services. As part of an end to end connected platform, Flowbuilt is the new standard for Made in the USA manufacturing that starts and ends with satisfied customers. FitStation by HP captures scan data on patients and consumers and sets in motion a process to deliver custom products using the only commercially available multi-section injection machine and HP Multi-Jet Fusion 3D printer.

So how is this different from Phits?Answered by: Paul Linton, Chief Executive Officer, Go 4-D

Go4-D is an extension of Phits from the perspective of an end-product. The power and excitement behind Go 4-D custom orthotics is the FitStation platform, which has the capacity to transform the biometric data into future custom products, such as footwear. 3D printed custom orthotics are just the beginning. FitStation, in alliance with Go 4-D, are leading a global trend toward on-demand, Industry 4.0 prescriptive products to help relieve pain and live an active lifestyle.

Dr. Lori Yarrow, Chief Customer Officer at Go 4-D told us that orthotics were an important market because,’

The incidence of foot pain, and consumption of orthotic insoles, is expected to grow in North America largely due to the aging population. Painful feet, and subsequent lack of activity, may contribute to a spiral of health consequences including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis and falls. Attending to foot pain is not just for the elderly. From teens to middle age, weekend warriors to performance athletes, abnormal foot biomechanics and pain are the consequence of walking and running on hard flat surfaces, which means that no one is immune to painful feet. Custom orthotics are an inexpensive, non-surgical, long-term solution that the end-user can access through a foot specialist, allowing them to live an active lifestyle.

The lack of modernization of custom orthotics has a number of consequences, including environmental impact, but more important is the fact that the end-user is not getting the unique precision, and reproducibility, that they need. Most custom orthotics are manufactured on a static model of the foot, using subjective grinding of a plastic shell with uniform density/stiffness, and manual placement of padding. Some orthotic manufacturers even use a library of shells based on foot length and width. The problem facing the end user is that their foot is dynamic as they walk, and their needs are segmental and unique is different areas on each foot. The current manufacturing model is flawed from the beginning since it is based on inaccurate information. The next issue is the uniform thickness of the plastic, which means that the foot specialist is unable to select specific areas of stiffness for control, or flexibility for comfort. The subjective, manual manufacturing of grinding and pads results in an orthotic that can’t be replicated for the patient who generally needs more than one set of orthotics for different footwear.

HP’s Sarah Clevinger of FitStation told us that,

“We selected Go 4-D as our North American market partner because of their extensive experience and knowledge of the custom orthotic industry. FitStation by HP can be used for many other applications in a variety of markets. As HP enters those markets, we will evaluate new channel partners.”

It is interesting that HP seems to want to pick particular resellers and partners to run point per major market in each vertical. This will speed up the delivery of the first application and customers but may be inefficient if the partners in question are weak. It would be the fastest way to get many business lines going and would let them create many more marketing leads in various industries in a concentrated time. For companies new to 3D printing partnering with one reseller and having one person to interface with that represents a series of companies specializing in their own thing would be very powerful. Especially for those orthotists who want nothing to do with manufacturing, are small or companies new to orthotics that want to roll this out in many thousands of locations this would be a powerful partnership to have. This can be extremely successful if Go 4-D aggressively rolls this out to the market or if HP lines up very large retailers new to in-house custom orthotics (Walgreens or Walmart anyone?). This kind of integrated solution lead by a big company is just what gives other big firms a nice safety blanket to curl up in at night. If HP and its team were to pursue this path then I think that this will be a huge win for 3D printing for orthotics.

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