AMS Spring 2023

Why Did HP Kill off its Full-Color 3D Printer?

Inkbit

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The full-color HP Jet Fusion 580 3D printer was a fantastic machine; however, HP’s decision to cease production of the system is shrouded in mystery. Nonetheless, there are fascinating takeaways from this product and its eventual demise.

For instance, the 580 was designed by a completely different team than the other series in the Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) portfolio. Based in the U.S. and Canada, the group created a compact product with a smaller build volume compared to the 4200 and 5200 production lines, primarily designed in Spain. No extra processing station was needed, and the powder was reclaimed automatically. What is curious is how efficient the 580 came to be. Parts could be had in less than one day. Functional prototypes in color were becoming valuable for point-of-care service, and the white parts were excellent, specifically in the medical industry. So, where did things go sideways?

The HP Jet Fusion 300/500 full-color 3D printer. Image courtesy of HP.

The History of HP

Let’s get some history in place first. On a camping trip in 1934, two college students, Bill Hewlett and David Packard, became fast friends. With access to a garage, the duo started building an oscillator to test sound equipment in 1938. Their first big break happened when the Walt Disney Company bought eight of these creations and, in 1939, Hewlett-Packard (HP) was born.

The company was incorporated on August 18, 1947 and went public on November 6, 1957. Soon, HP was involved in myriad of electronics projects, including the atomic clock and light-emitting diodes (LEDs). By 1968, the first “personal computer” was manifested in the form of what we know now as a calculator, the Hewlett-Packard 9100A. As the company grew into the next decade, San Francisco’s “Silicon Valley” became known as a hub of innovation. The first actual personal computer was built by HP in 1980 and could not only use peripherals, but also communicate with other computers.

The HP9100A “personal computer.” Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Computers weren’t all that fun without the ability to produce tangible objects—hence the birth of the first 2D printer in 1984. Dave and Bill wanted to make it a goal that everyone could have one that was affordable. Printers evolved into OfficeJet in the mid-1990s, and HP pushed into the new millennium with a new generation of computers and large and small format printers.

As the burgeoning segment of rapid prototyping began to evolve, printing in the third dimension became an intriguing space for larger companies. HP itself had some unique 2D technology with its inkjet. HP began to play around with how its ink could act as a binder that would react to heat to “cure” layers. The process yielded some interesting results, and, in 2016, the first MJF machine was released.

Competing Teams in MJF 3D Printing

It was at this point that things within HP’s 3D printing division became complicated. Visionaries outside of the company could see the significance of the technology; however, inside, HP could not see past 2D. Leadership struggled because this was not a 2D product, yet they tried getting 2D people to lead it. In 2018, coinciding with the SOLIDWORKS User Group, the HP Jet Fusion 580 was launched.

Full-color sample of MJF printed part. Image courtesy of HP.

With the HP Jet Fusion 580, users had a printer that relied on 2D technology to print in 3D, both in full color and white alone! Compounding issues related to a lack of creativity and focus at the leadership level was the fact that this was a product that was inherently difficult to understand. Instead of focusing on hardware and allowing users to determine how to use the product, HP attempted to create demand for the product, incidentally stunting growth and adoption.

Over the next few years, the MJF 580 started getting a reputation as a problematic printer that was costly to operate. In a conversation on LinkedIn, David Tucker, Business Development Advisor at MasterGraphics, stated, “When they released it, it didn’t have all the bugs worked out. I thought it was a cool product that needed the market and applications to be developed.”

Maurice Sheer, CEO and Founder of 3D-LABS GmbH, posted, “Pulped to an ‘end-of-life’ product last year coz of too high manufacturing costs…” When asked where Sheer had heard that information, he answered that it was from the sales guy.

For a project to succeed, it’s necessary to have the whole team coordinated in the same direction. It seemed that a disconnect began between the 4200/5200 series teams in Europe and the 580 Series groups in North America. There were some employees that worked on the 580 project believed that HP Europe insisted on making the powder cost three times higher the 4200/5200 series to sabotage the sales that continued to outpace their expectations.

Meanwhile, companies like i-Solids started to become successful by using the MJF 580 as, according to Kason Knight, “The best salesman for the technology.” The 580 was such a good promoter for MJF that i-Solids has continued to grow, with Knight maintaining eight production machines. Even ABCorp and Airbus had taken to HP’s full-color MJF.

Instead of HP management seeing the 580 and 4200/5200 series as complimentary products, they were viewed as competing. Something had to give.

Are Full-Color Parts Weaker?

There were also rumblings that the MJF 580 parts were weaker. Users like Cuyler Ackroyd, Technical Application Engineer at Fictiv, heard “directly” from HP that they were, saying, “…my main qualm with the 580 was the fact that it printed 30% weaker parts from a material standpoint.”

Users like Jerry Sutton, Managing Director at Incremental Engineering Ltd, countered, “The strength difference between our 580 parts and the 5210 is massively controlled by the part thickness. You lose a bit in the colour shell (but no more than if you made an allowance on part size for paint). This can be useful, too, as thin parts using mainly colour shell are beautifully flexible. Once treated in an AMT Postpro they are vibrant, robust, and sealed.”

Koray Kilic, Product Manager at AbilityMade, went as far as to say, “After doing in-house testing of 15+ print bureaus (SLS, SAF, 4200 MJF, 5200 MJF, and MJF 580), I can comfortably say nothing comes close in terms of elongation at break and fatigue life to an MJF 580 print that has been AMT smoothed.”

I sought more objective data and sent two sockets, one from a 5200 Series and one from a 580 Series, to CT startup Lumafield to have them scanned. The results were stunning: the 580 socket was superior in minimal internal part defects and porosity.

The End of Full-Color 3D Printing

With the printer only out for one-and-a-half years, HP let go of nearly all of employees that developed the 580. COVID was the ostensible reason to make the move, allowing the company to discontinue the machine in a silent as a manner as possible. The program never had a chance to blossom, even though sales were good and consumables sales were profitable. The program was not hemorrhaging money and, while the technology was not fully understood by consumers, amazing innovations were happening.

In 2021, the rumblings got loud enough that the HP Jet Fusion 580 was given an end-of-life put on it for seven years, meaning that there would be no support or service for the machine after that time. Francois Minec, Global Head of 3D Polymers for P3D at HP, told 3DPrint.com:

“We are no longer selling the HP Jet Fusion 580 Series, which is designed to support prototyping with full color capabilities. We continue to support our customers using the Jet Fusion 580 printers to design, develop and iterate amazing applications. Whilst we have discontinued the 580 Series, we are taking full advantage of the technology and knowledge, and a good example of that is the white launch.

“We have made the commitment to prioritize helping our partners and customers scale to production. With that objective front and center, we are investing in industrial-grade digital manufacturing solutions like the new modular Metal Jet S100 Solution and the new Jet Fusion 5420W for polymers which delivers production quality and performance, and also supports the demand for white parts.”

After talking to many people, no one knows what happened behind closed doors during those fateful corporate meetings. On the surface, there were hurt feelings, a lack of vision, a lack of stable 3D leadership (HP had six managers of the AM division since 2016), and finally lack of listening to the consumer. There is only one explanation: as a result of hubris, the HP Jet Fusion 580 was fumbled, botched, mismanaged, flubbed, mishandled, and as a result, the CEO of HP, Inc., Enrique Lores, told the audience at Canalys Channels Forum in Barcelona:

“…orders for 3D printers are falling short of early promise, with some analysts saying the tech has failed to cross into the mainstream despite a relative boom during the pandemic.”

Canalys CEO Steve Brazier replied, “I think clearly the growth rates have not been what all of us were expecting, I would say five, six years ago. But I think the long-term opportunity continues to be there. Especially as we think of new supply chain models where manufacturing will be more local, more distributed.”

Lores followed up with, “What we have done during the last two years is we have shifted our strategy. We not only focus anymore on developing hardware systems or consumables or services around the hardware. We saw that there was the need and the opportunity of building more end-to-end applications.”

If the spirit of “accessibility to technology” that Bill Hewlett and David Packard preached still guided HP, the 580 would have never been killed.

Full Color 3D Printing Orthotics and Prosthetics

In seven years, many things can happen. In fact, seven years ago, no MJF technology was known to the public. Personally, I work in prosthetics through my non-profit LifeNabled, and see a gaping hole in point-of-care printing, life-changing prosthetic devices, and who knows what else. I’m not the only one in this subsegment nor in 3D printing at large that feels this way.

A full-color 3D printed orthotic device created by LifeNabled on a Jet Fusion 580 machine. Image courtesy of the author.

Kent Mages, Founding President at Custom Color 3D Printing, stated, “I’ll throw my two cents in. As someone who owns 35 of them, the technology and price point just focused on the wrong existing markets. What we’ve been able to do at scale isn’t possible with any other machine.”

Dennis Richard, Orthotist at 3D Stability LLC, said, “The 580 was way ahead of its time. The O and P industry just wasn’t ready for it. I still say HP developed the 580 for pediatric O and P. This machine has advanced my practice, but most importantly, the 580 improves the lives of so many patients.”

Former HP employee Lee Dockstader added, “HP leaving the color 3D printer category was one of the worst business decisions I’ve seen in 25 years of 3D printing. No resin-based system can compete for functional color parts. Was the 580 perfect?…No, but an excellent Rev. 1.0 product.”

Kevin Williams, Director of Engineering Solutions for Additive Manufacturing at Adia, stated, “Agree completely. Very disappointing to our business and our clients.”

I remember sitting down with a group from HP, discussing the Orthotic and Prosthetic industry and saying how I could see one of these in at least 10% of the 3000+ clinics in the U.S. alone. The price was right, the size was right, and, even with the inflated powder prices, the operational costs still made sense.

The company must have known the end-of-life was coming because the discussion quickly moved to how contract manufacturing and the 4200/5200 series makes so much sense. Even the Veterans Administration started purchasing the 580 because the department saw the need and felt that this was a product with which it could start building out some of its regulated devices.

Profits from Full-Color Prosthetics

For the orthotic and prosthetic field, this machine makes sense for quick turn around and durable, consistent devices at a price that is not unreasonable. HP had a 3-4x margin on the printer and printed money via consumables and powder cost markup. In fact, the margins made more sense for the 580 on consumables as a revenue-generating source than even the highest level of 5210 Pro consumables, where margins are razor thin.

I took a look at the numbers based on my own experience with the 580: if 10 percent of the U.S. clinic had one in the office, that would represent about 300 printers. Quick math shows that number to be $42,000,000 in sales of the machine only, roughly $6,000,000 in renewable service contracts, and roughly $30,000,000 annually in consumables and powder sales running the machine only two times a week across all locations. A grand total of nearly $200,000,000 in revenue not including machine sales left on the table for one tiny industry over the next 5 years.

There are close to 5,000 hospitals nationwide. What if 20 percent decided to perform medical modeling and surgical planning in house via the many software and support companies on the market, though the number actually pursuing this strategy is likely larger. That translates to $135,000,000 in machine sales, $20,000,000 in annual renewable service contracts, $100,000,000 in annual consumable and powder sales annually again running only two builds a week across all machines.

What if HP actually invested money into software that helped create these models and devices to establish another revenue stream? Just between these two low-hanging-fruit industries you are looking at a conservative estimate of $1-2 billion in revenue, not including machine sales over the course of five years. What about the lives changed or even saved through the use of this technology? Priceless. Moreover, HP goes down as one of the most influential companies working toward the good of humanity, all while creating sustainable revenue and jobs worldwide.

With all of this in mind, HP should bring back the MJF 580 and empower its consumers to use it in efficient and creative ways that HP may never have even considered. HP’s 3D printing division should not be all about production on the 4200/5200 series machines that are unaffordable to most. It should be about allowing the “little guy,” small businesses, the point-of-care facilities to thrive due to access to a technology that would be otherwise inaccessible. In the mean time, HP released the HP Jet Fusion 5420W Solution for 3D printing white parts, an industrial machine demanded by the healthcare industry because there were no other similar options, aside from SLS, for 3D printing white parts.

The MJF 580 is also a complementary sidekick to the 4200/5200 series. Would there be greater demand for the 4200/5200 if the 580 was never killed? I hope HP does the right thing and we are able to find out.

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