On two separate occasions in October 2014, I saw HP Multi Jet Fusion machines running and building parts. The new technology uses HP thermal inkjet arrays to print fusing and detailing agents onto thin layers of thermoplastic powder. An energy source is used to fuse the areas where the agents were deposited. What I saw was extraordinary. The build speed is 10 times faster than other 3D printers and additive manufacturing systems, according to HP, and what I witnessed supports this claim.
The quality of the parts I saw and held also got my attention, especially since the technology that produced the parts will not become a product until 2016. The edges of the parts were crisp, the features were well defined, and areas that are supposed to flat were indeed flat. Also, a number of them were multi-colored. Bringing together this speed, part quality, and multi-color using thermoplastic materials is a first.
Left: HP senior vice president Stephen Nigro and USA Today reporter on October 29, 2014 in New York City. Middle: Vase and flower printed in color. Right: 3D-printed mechanism for use on the Multi Jet Fusion machine. According to HP, it out-performed a similar mechanism that was machined in metal.
Strength properties of parts made on the machine, I was told, are good. However, until we see independent test data, it’s too early to say how they compare to laser-sintered parts. A car weighing 4,536 kg (10,000 lbs) was lifted using a 113-gram (0.25 lb) chain link printed on the HP machine.
We will better understand the impact that Multi Jet Fusion will have on the market after we hear from customers using the machine. Until then, it’s difficult to know what it will be. However, I believe it could compete with conventional plastics processing, such as injection molding, for certain types of parts and quantities. This would disrupt both the 3D printing and plastics processing industries.
HP has not yet discussed pricing, but the company has referred to “breakthrough economics” on multiple occasions when describing its possible impact. If the machine is priced aggressively and the consumables are competitive for manufacturing quantities, I truly believe it could not only be a game-changer, but it could rewrite the rules of 3D printing.