HP Reveals Multi Jet Fusion 3D Printer and New Era of Manufacturing
Davide Sher posted on May 17, 2016 |
After two years of announcements, conferences, teaser presentations and press releases, anyone who follows the 3D printing industry closely now knows just about everything there is to know about what HP’s new Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) technology is aiming to achieve.

During HP’s top-secret press and analyst tour of HP Labs in Barcelona, Spain, where much of the company’s 3D printing research and development takes place, the only questions left to answer were whether or not the first tech giant to venture into the 3D printing space was truly going to live up to two years of mounting expectations. The short answer is definitely.

HP provided all of the details about its new MJF technology at an exclusive event at HP Labs in Barcelona, Spain. (Image courtesy of HP.)
The longer answer is that HP’s entrance into the market may be potentially the most disruptive event in manufacturing since the invention of 3D printing. MJF provides the clearest indication yet that this new digital way of making things is actually going to happen and that it is going to be big.
Alex Monino unveils the near-final HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer. (Image courtesy of the author.)

HP released an ocean of information during its day-and-a-half event in Barcelona, during which every senior manager, engineer, researcher and marketing executive provided extensive and detailed answers to dozens of questions that were thrown at them by an audience of industry analysts and specialized journalists.

It all boiled down to five major elements characterizing MJF that will enable 3D printing to enter a new era of mass customization: 1) speed; 2) part quality; 3) voxel-level, multimaterial and multicolor capabilities; 4) an open-materials philosophy and 5) competitiveness with mass production. 

To achieve unprecedented performance on all of these fronts, HP’s scientists were able to take the best practices from every major additive manufacturing technology and blend them together into an upgradable system that can offer the ideal solution to a huge number of manufacturing applications, present and future

Speed

MJF’s first applications will be in the production of end-use parts and functional prototypes. Its main competitors on this front are the 3D printing processes of fused deposition modeling (FDM) and selective laser sintering (SLS), and the first term of comparison is speed.

HP confirmed that MJF is several orders of magnitude faster than any existing 3D printing technologies. With certain geometries (HP uses a model of a particular double gear to demonstrate most of their speed comparisons), this means rates up to 10 times faster than SLS and up to 50 times faster than FDM. 

The HP 3D printer does this by fusing (not sintering) together an entire layer of powder in one pass. The way it works is similar to binder jetting, with the X arm depositing the powder and the Y arm depositing the liquid refining agent (more on this later). Then, energy in the form of heat is added through a set of infrared lamps. Furthermore, because an entire layer is fused at once, the time required to print each layer is extremely short compared to SLS, in which each part needs to be individually sintered with a laser. 

The build chamber is located on a cart that can be extracted and inserted in the rapid cooling station for a further inmanycrease in process speed. (Image courtesy of the author.)

You can imagine this approach as analogous to digital light processing (DLP) 3D printing, curing an entire layer of the object, compared to standard stereolithography (SLA), in which every layer line has to be “drawn” by a laser. Since MJF does not require stabilization of the powder bed after each pass, it can also enjoy the same speed advantages of the new-generation continuous DLP technologies, such as continuous liquid interface production from Carbon. At the same time though, MJF enjoys the same complete geometrical freedom (no supports required) as nonmetallic powder bed technologies. 

The MJF process speed is also increased through the automation of the post-processing phase. This means that the 3D printer comes with an optional, separate, highly automated and fully enclosed cooling station. When the 3D printing phase is complete, all that the operator has to do is simply remove the cart that contains the printed part and the surrounding excess powder and move it into the cleaning station. After the required cooling time (also faster than that required for SLS), a system of vacuum tubes will automatically remove most of the powder for the human operator to apply the finishing touches. All of the unused powder is then automatically refilled and mixed with fresh powder and can be entirely reused. As soon as the cart is moved to the cooling station, the 3D printer can begin work on the following batch.

Solidity, Precision and Competition

When released before the end of 2016, HP’s MJF 3D printers will come in two different end-to-end solutions: the HP Jet Fusion 3D 3200 and the manufacturing-grade HP Jet Fusion 3D 4200. Both have the same build volume, measuring an impressive 406 cm x 305 cm x 406 cm (16 in x 12 in x 16 in). Both also offer the same part quality and accuracy. The main difference is that the 4200 will be able to 3D print up to 25 percent faster, with cooling times up to five times faster. It will also offer lower material costs with the possibility of using 200-L barrels of materials, instead of the standard 13-kg cartridges. In other words, the 4200 is designed for serial production. 

The first element that HP is focused on at launch is part quality. MJF manufactured parts are comparable to SLA in terms of surface quality and resolution. When considering the use of the same materials (PA12, a form of nylon), MJF parts are also superior to both SLS and FDM in terms of resolution and part srength. Because each powder particle is fully fused, the final parts are significantly stronger than SLS parts. The company also outlined a plan to expand the range of materials beyond PA12 to elastomers and high-temperature thermoplastics.

New material cartridges are connected to the printer’s post-processing unit. The fresh material is mixed with the recycled material to further reduce costs. (Image courtesy of the author.)
The fusion process is achieved by applying heat to an entire layer of particles at the same time. While it may seem counterintuitive, this means that a less intense heat is applied to each single powder granule for a time that is 1,000 times longer (60 milliseconds compared to SLS’s 60 microseconds). The process is thus less violent, yielding better quality results. Through the application of the liquid agent, which modifies the thermal conductivity of each voxel on its edges, the fully fused particles can then be combined to form more precise edges and smoother surfaces on the final part.

This inherently implies that, at this point, the companies most threatened by HP’s aggressive market strategy are the SLS 3D printer manufacturers, since the MJP is debuting with a single nylon PA12 material. Only in a second phase will MJF be able to expand to the high-temperature thermoplastics used with FDM. Voxel-level, multimaterial and multicolor control—today only possible with Stratasys’ PolyJet 3D printing technology—will likely take a bit longer to implement.

According to HP, the MJF process is able to produce parts that are significantly stronger than SLS-produced parts, even when starting from the same base material (nylon 12). (Image courtesy of HP.)

A Material World 

The liquid agent that is added during the 3D printing process also enables voxel-level control of a printed object in terms of color and mechanical properties. This is the only aspect HP did not deliver at the time of the Barcelona tour and is also the most fascinating and interesting of all: the ability to control multimateriality in a thermoplastic powder bed–based technology.

Even though HP’s 3D printer is launching with a single material (nylon PA12), the company has already achieved multicolor and multimaterial capabilities and will progressively implement them through software and hardware upgrades.

HP’s 3D printing future holds the promise of full voxel level multimaterial and multicolor control for end-use, functional parts. (Image courtesy of HP.)
To gain a better understanding of what HP’s technology is able to do, just imagine that the piezoelectric print heads in its industrial 2D printers are able to digitally control billions of picoliter-size droplets every second via thousands of nozzles. In the MJF process, HP can do this with their liquid agents as well. HP’s material scientists can precisely control the way that the agent mixes with the fused powder particles. For example, a material’s angle of diffraction can be altered to be made transparent or the level of its plasticity altered to make it more or less flexible. “There are 12,000 nozzles per every inch, ejecting a 10-picoliter drop of each agent, which is placed in a 20- by 20-micron grid. We can apply four to eight agents, with different chemistries that can affect material properties,” said Alex Monino, worldwide marketing director of HP’s Large Format Printing Business division.

Achieving this will require more research as it enters into a new “alchemy”-like realm of possibilities, but the foundations have been laid down and the company’s vision is clear. HP will offer a selection of base materials; each one of these materials will have a range of augmented capabilities, activated by the different liquid refining agents. In a way, it is similar to what Stratasys’ multimaterial PolyJet technology does with the Connex3 and the new J750. The difference is that MJF is going to do it with end-use thermopolymers instead of photoactive resins. 

At launch, HP’s 3D printer will not support multicolor 3D printing. However, given the company’s capabilities in terms of digital 2D printing, introducing this feature is probably the least difficult of the challenges that lay ahead. When that technique is released, it will become easy to create functional, full-color objects, where the color can be applied to every section of a part, even the internal portions. In other words, instead of a fragile “mini-me” sculpture (now seen with ColorJet Printing), you may soon be able to have a solid, durable and fully articulated action figure of yourself with MJF.

Being able to modify internal voxels also means that MJF technology is ideally suited for embedded electronics. This is another major trend in 3D printing and, thus far, was only possible through photo-reactive, resin-based inkjet technologies, which are not generally considered ideal for end-use products. 

With MJF, it will be possible—and affordable—to create parts with embedded sensors or LED indicators that can warn users about wear and tear. Embedded antennas and wireless transmitters open the door to millions of possible Internet of Things applications. 

These developments have been envisioned for 3D printing for a long time, but with MJF, they become realistic. It can be done; it is just a matter of optimizing the materials for the process. The company’s decision to launch with just one material, PA12, is a bit of a letdown, but it makes sense. In terms of speed, cost and part quality, HP’s 3D printers can already offer what no other 3D printer currently on the market can. No need to get ahead of the curve, especially since a majority of engineers still need to fully understand how to design for 3D multicolor and multimateriality, let alone embedded electronics. 

Open Philosophy

HP’s market approach shows that the company has carefully studied and learned from mistakes made by others in the past. As Ramon Pastor, vice president and general manager of HP’s 3D Printing Business division, explained, “In an industry growing 30 percent year over year, it is not a matter of 3D printing companies competing against each other for market share as much as digital manufacturing companies competing against traditional mass manufacturing to build a more efficient way of making everything.”

In other words, 3D printing companies should not try to battle to dominate the $5 billion 3D printing industry but should collaborate to take a larger slice of the $12 trillion manufacturing industry.

The company is combining its huge R&D capabilities with the understanding gained from studying the best and worst past practices. (Image courtesy of the author.)
In order to do this, HP (yes, HP) borrowed a best practice from the open-source movement and chose to apply an open-materials approach. This means that anyone will be able to develop and sell materials for use in its 3D printers.

As it happened in the open-desktop 3D printing market, this is going to drastically drive down material prices (one of the biggest barriers to adoption of large-scale 3D printing). In order to promote this approach, the company also borrowed a concept from the mobile phone industry, providing potential material suppliers with a Materials Development Kit. This will give innovative material companies immediate access to a global material marketplace. The initial list of third-party material partners includes giant companies such as BASF, Arkema, Evonik and Lehmann & Voss.

In a future global manufacturing landscape populated with HP 3D printers, 3D printing services will be able to digitally purchase any material they want and have it delivered anywhere through HP’s global distribution network.

In a way, the materials could become “physical apps” that, combined with 3D designs, can unleash the machine’s creative power, just like apps do in a smartphone. Those future 3D models will be in the new 3MF file format, as the STL file format is unable to efficiently support multimaterial and multicolor capabilities. The irony here is that the 3MF consortium includes some of the most traditionally “closed” companies, such as Microsoft, Autodesk and HP, all partnering for an open-software and materials approach.

Mass Production

All of these elements combined enable HP’s 3D printer to fulfill the promise of 3D printing and truly challenge traditional manufacturing, even for mass production. Under certain conditions and on certain geometries—for example, the small double gear mentioned earlier—this means that it could be more convenient to use MJF to produce up to 58,000 parts.

On shorter series, the advantages are even clearer, and this is just the beginning. In fact, 66 parts of the MJF 3D printer itself are actually 3D printed (another concept dear to the open-source RepRap movement). Of these, only about 20 were designed specifically to take advantage of 3D printing’s geometric possibilities, while the others were standard parts that proved more convenient to 3D print in small numbers.

Many did not believe that mass 2D digital printing was possible, and HP now dominates that market. That experience is now going to be used in the additive manufacturing sector. (Image courtesy of the author.)
HP understood that lowering the cost of materials is the key for 3D printing to really take off as an alternative to injection molding. At the same time, the company reasoned that the initial investment (i.e. the price) of the machine is currently the biggest barrier to entry into 3D printing. It has acted upon this by pricing its 3200 3D printer at $120,000 and its manufacturing-grade 4200 model for around $200,000. This is considerably lower than any comparable-sized SLS or FDM 3D printer currently available.

During the lab tour, Stephen Nigro, president of 3D printing at HP and the man credited for building HP’s huge digital 2D printing business, has made it clear that the company is using this experience, along with the muscle of its over $100 billion yearly revenue, to perfect its 3D printing offer.

In a new sector, this may not be enough, and HP has also been working closely with some of the largest 3D printing services. Jabil, Materialise, Proto Labs and Shapeways took part during the research and development phase. This involved having representatives from all companies actively participate in the development of the machine and regularly visit HP’s R&D facility. Shapeways CEO Peter Weijmarshausen, who presented during the lab tour, also explained how this technological leap could open the way to the manufacturing future he has envisioned. Because Shapeways is the most B2C-focused company partnering with HP, it is also possibly the one that most stands to benefit from HP’s drastic cost reduction.

What Shapeways does serves as an anticipation of what will occur as HP establishes similar centers throughout its global network. These locations will work on new materials and software or hardware upgrades and, ultimately, serve as a network of 3D printing centers. As the first huge IT company enters the world of industrial production, the concept of “digital additive manufacturing” can fully live up to its name.


About the Author

Davide Sher (@davidesher) has been a tech journalist for a variety of publications since 2002. In 2013, he founded a leading Italian 3D printing news site, IL REPLICATORE. He went on to become senior writer for 3D Printing Industry, before the company was sold in 2016. Sher currently writes for several key 3D printing news sites, in Italy and internationally. In 2016, he founded the 3Dprintingbusiness.directory, the largest global listing of 3D printing companies, with nearly 3,000 firms listed and categorized.

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