Almost somewhat quietly, 3D printing technology advances rapidly along, as a digital technology seeing improvements roughly along the lines of the famous “Moore’s Law” for computer chip progress identified decades ago by the former Intel CEO.
Now, HP claims to have changed the game with a new 3D printer that for HP represents the first machine it is offering that can produce metal parts, versus plastic or polymer materials.
HP unveiled the Metal Jet printer as part of the International Manufacturing Technology show in Chicago this week.
That release included news about a customer, a firm called GKN Plc, which HP says has started using the printers in its factories to produce parts for companies including automaker Volkswagen.
GKN currently 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.
Of course, HP is not the first with a 3D printer that can in effect use fused metallic dust to create objects, with competitors such as 3D Systems and Stratasys already in the game.
But HP claims but HP said Metal Jet can produce a lot more parts at “significantly” lower cost than existing machines.
The initial metal focus for HP will revolve around stainless steel-based products. As demand develops, HP will move into other metals too, including potentially titanium.
3D printing technology let’s manufacturers produce parts without first having to build the factory tools that are traditionally required.
With that in mind, Martin Goede, head of technology planning and development for the Volkswagen brand, said that “By reducing the cycle time for the production of parts, we can realize a higher volume of mass production very quickly.”
The key issue with any 3D printing has always been scalability. It’s one thing to slowly produce say a service part that is needed only a relatively few times a year. Even if the cost per part is high, the savings come from not needing to keep inventory of each part on hand.
Material limitations have also been a 3D printing issue.
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In the automotive industry, you have not only the for durable metal parts, but parts that may be needed by the millions – a tough challenge for the speed and cost of 3D printed products.
And thus it turns out that the HP printer will be reserved for specialty parts on certain models, and not for the highest-selling vehicles. Volkswagen will start out with cosmetic pieces, with GKN using the printers to make customized car key rings and nameplates that drivers can put on their trunk lid or door.
Moving forward, Volkswagen plans to use printed mirror mounts and gearshift knobs, and said it continues to evaluate other use-cases for HP’s machines.
“The sweet spot of 3D printing technologies is not in giant numbers in vehicles,” 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.”
Still, Dr. Tim Weber, global head of HP’s metals 3D printing business, said the company is focused on mass production not specialized, low volume products. He added that “We’ve been setting our sights on prototyping to production to mass production.”
However, even HP is urging caution in terms of how fast this can catch on in big volumes.
Stephen Nigro, HP’s president of 3D printing, says it will be at least five to 10 years before the technology products generated a material share of HP’s sales, which topped $50 billion last year. (HP is the printer and ink division spun out of the old HP.)
In fact, HP says the Metal Jet will not even be “broadly available” until 2021. As part of that roadmap, HP intends to offer metallic 3D printing as a service, not just selling the machines.
Some commercial Metal Jet systems will be available in 2020, HP says, starting for about $399,000 each. Preorders are available today.
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