Courting factories' business, HP unveils 3-D metal printer

Posted: September 11, 2018 at 2:16 a.m.

HP Inc., the largest maker of personal computers, is pushing into the manufacturing industry with its first printer that can churn out 3-D metal parts.

HP unveiled the Metal Jet printer, and some early customers, at the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago on Monday.

Engineering firm GKN is using the printers in its factories to produce parts for companies including Volkswagen. GKN makes more than 3 billion components a year and expects to print millions of production-grade HP Metal Jet parts for customers as early as next year, HP said in a statement.

"We are in the midst of a digital industrial revolution that is transforming the $12 trillion manufacturing industry," HP Chief Executive Officer Dion Weisler said. "HP has helped lead this transformation by pioneering the 3-D mass production of plastic parts and we are now doubling down with HP Metal Jet."

Since its split from Hewlett Packard Enterprise, HP has redoubled efforts to expand beyond its core PC and paper printer businesses, and 3-D printing is a big part of the plan. The new steel-printing machine could open up new opportunities in the automotive, industrial and medical-equipment fields. Metal-parts manufacturer Parmatech Corp. has also signed on as a partner.

Printers that make three-dimensional metal objects already exist, but HP said Metal Jet can produce a lot more parts at "significantly" lower cost than existing machines.

Such technology lets manufacturers produce parts without first having to build the factory tools that are traditionally needed, according to Martin Goede, head of technology planning and development for the Volkswagen brand.

"By reducing the cycle time for the production of parts, we can realize a higher volume of mass production very quickly," Goede said.

Stephen Nigro, HP's president of 3-D printing, was more cautious than his boss Weisler, saying it will be at least five to 10 years before the unit generated a material share of HP's sales, which topped $50 billion last year.

The reason for the caution is that even at early-adopter Volkswagen, use of the printer will be reserved for specialty parts on certain models, and not for the highest-selling vehicles. Volkswagen will start out with cosmetic pieces, having partner GKN use the printers to make customized car-key rings and nameplates that drivers can put on their trunk lids or doors. For its next generation of cars, Volkswagen plans to use printed mirror mounts and gearshift knobs, and it continues to evaluate other potential uses for HP's machines.

"The sweet spot of 3-D printing technologies is not in giant numbers in vehicles like the Golf," said Sven Crull, Volkswagen's head of design for new manufacturing technologies. "There's a better use case in more specialty parts for vehicles with volume of 50,000 to half a million."

That underscores the challenge of making the Metal Jet printer ubiquitous: At very high volume, other manufacturing methods are more economical. Still, Nigro said, it's one of HP's best opportunities to bolster its future.

"We needed to come up with a disruptive or winning technology," he said. "We need to have a vision that's not just compelling today, but in the future."

Business on 09/11/2018