The Future of HP’s Multi Jet Fusion 3D Printing
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on June 06, 2016 |

From the outset, HP’s Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) platform stands to have fairly strong potential for the 3D printing industry, producing nylon parts 10 times faster than selective laser sintering (SLS) machines. However, it may be the future of MJF technology that is the most exciting for 3D printing and manufacturing as a whole. 

The HP MJF 3D printer at RAPID 2016

At RAPID 2016, HP laid out its exhibitor space almost as a timeline for the development of MJF technology. At the outer area of the booth stood the printer and examples of how MJF is already being used at HP to produce end parts for specialty equipment. Toward the center, attendees followed the subsequent stages of HP’s 3D printing platform, including the new materials that will be released in the near future and the next-generation capabilities that MJF will be able to employ, including 3D printing electronics, ceramics, quantum dots and more.

MJF 3D Printing Now

Prior to discussing what MJF might be capable of in the near future, it’s important to know just what it can do right now. The MJF platform, to be made available at the end of 2016, deposits a fusing agent and detailing agent onto a layer of powder before a set of infrared lamps fuses the entire layer. The use of a powder bed opens the technology up to 3D printing parts as geometrically complex as those 3D printed with SLS, but at even greater speeds. In addition to the fusing and detailing agents, the platform can use a wide variety of special-purpose inks to control the material at the voxel (three-dimensional pixel) level, allowing for varying material properties throughout a single print. These properties include strength, flex, color, transparency, texture and more.

Infrared lamps fuse thermoplastic particles together. 

Though the HP Jet Fusion 3D 3200 and Jet Fusion 3D 4200 machines will only be able to 3D print with black nylon material when they begin shipping later this year, HP has already demonstrated the capabilities of the technology by 3D printing parts of the printers themselves. Given the limited demand for industrial 3D printers compared to that of 2D office printers, the company performed batch production for its own machines, 3D printing 66 parts for each Jet Fusion system. About 20 components were made to take advantage of the geometrical possibilities of 3D printing, while the rest leverage the low-volume production capabilities of the MJF platform. 

HP has begun 3D printing end parts for its specialty equipment, such as the MJF printers themselves.

On display at RAPID, the tech giant had a number of these functional components, not just for its 3D printers, but also for other machines with limited demand. For some of these parts, HP was able to reduce the weight by 80 percent and the costs by 60 percent. Foregoing molds that might cost between $100,000 and $200,000, HP was able to 3D print some specialty components for just $130.

MJF 3D Printing Soon

When MJF was first revealed to the world in 2014, HP showcased numerous full-color 3D prints as strong as mass-manufactured, molded components. While full-color 3D printing will not be available with the release of HP’s first MJF systems, these capabilities are not far out of reach.

 

A full-color MJF 3D print. (Image courtesy of HP.) 

At RAPID, the company explained that there is no specific release date yet for full-color 3D printing, but that it is very compatible with the process implemented in these first systems. The HP Jet Fusion 3D 3200 and Jet Fusion 3D 4200 feature two ink channels—one a fusing agent and the other a detailing agent—for adding fine features. To be able to 3D print a complete CMYK color palette, the company would need to add more channels for color, modify its software and perhaps tweak parameters associated with the UV lamps, as there may be different curing times associated with wavelength changes.

HP has also announced new materials that are already in development, driven, in part, by its open materials approach. Leveraging outside materials manufacturers, HP believes, will allow for much more rapid evolution of 3D printing materials for its platform. Therefore, working with companies like Evonik, Lehmann & Voss & Co., BASF and Arkema, HP is planning to release more thermoplastics, including PA12 glass beads, flame retardant materials and elastomers.

MJF 3D Printing in the Future

At RAPID 2016, HP set aside its “Voxel Room,” showcasing some of the possibilities MJF has for the future of production. Despite expectations, the Voxel Room was filled not with schematics and videos for next-generation technologies, but with actual 3D-printed parts demonstrating the ability to 3D print electronics, ceramics and quantum dots, all using the MJF platform as a starting-off point. 

Like the larger exhibition booth, the Voxel Room was organized in terms of applications that are nearer to production to those that are a bit more distant. Immediately walking into the glass enclosure, one was confronted with the augmented reality (AR) potential of MJF. By 3D printing full-color objects with barely perceptible color variations, it’s possible to embed unique color codes into an object, which can then be used in conjunction with AR apps.

 
Imperceptible codes can be embedded in 3D-printed objects for AR applications.

To demonstrate this, HP had 3D printed gears that, when scanned with a tablet, would call up manufacturing information related to the part. On the surface, each blue gear looked identical, but, when examined more closely, perhaps under a microscope, it became clear that the blue color was actually made up of a mosaic of colors, with each gear using its own individual mosaic as a code that could only be registered by the associated app.

HP staff explained that external coloring could be used to trace the origin of the part, while internal coloring could be used to determine the overall wear experienced by the component. As the teeth wear down, new colors could be revealed and scanned to determine the remaining shelf life of the part. This same approach could be applied to validating the authenticity of an object, such as a collectible figurine. By 3D printing an object with an imperceptible color code, a limited-edition Mickey Mouse statue could be validated as the genuine artifact. However, if one was hesitant to alter the colors of an item, he or she could, instead, turn to quantum dots and UV light. By introducing a fluid channel devoted to nanoparticle inks, HP was able to 3D print objects with invisible QR codes, only revealed by UV lights.

UV-reactive inks can be used to 3D print invisible QR codes into objects. 

As quantum dots can be implemented in solar cells to increase energy absorption, the potential for 3D printing solar panels with complex geometries is not entirely out of the question. Though such an idea is surely a bit further out of reach, HP showed off some of the possibilities for electronics 3D printing in the Voxel Room.

3D Printing Electronics

As a proof of concept, HP 3D printed a load cell using an electronic infusing agent to create pairs of strain gauges on the top and bottom of the object. On display at the event, the cell was placed into a mechanism to showcase its strain-sensing capabilities. The cell was wired to a load cell amplifier with a silver, room-temperature epoxy, while weights were hung onto the bottom of the cell, yanking it into a three-point bend. Hooked up to a microcontroller with a Bluetooth module, the cell was able to communicate the varying loads placed upon it, with a color bar growing from green to yellow to red as the weight increased.

Conductive inks 3D printed within an object foreshadows a world of smart components. 

One possible use for such an application would be to 3D print parts with strain gauges embedded within them that could be continuously monitored for stress, wear and tear. Imagine a complete aircraft featuring embedded sensors that could constantly provide feedback, alerting operators as to when a component needed to be replaced and possibly avoiding a potential catastrophe.

Ceramics 3D Printing

Perhaps the furthest from full-scale implementation for HP is the ability to 3D print ceramics. That doesn’t mean the company can’t do it, as evidenced by the 3D-printed ceramic parts in the Voxel Room, but that it will require some more substantial modifications to the MJF platform in order to pull it off. With HP’s thermoplastic printing, the material is melted together. Ceramics, however, are sintered and, so, would require different hardware components. In other words, it would not necessarily be possible to create ceramic parts on the same machine that would print electronics.

Ultra-dense, 3D-printed ceramic components made by HP. (Image courtesy of HP.) 

HP’s research team has so far been able to achieve outstanding capabilities with 3D printing ceramics, producing parts with extremely high resolution and density. Small particles have a tendency to group together, the way that powdered sugar more readily clumps than granulated sugar, but HP has learned to print with submicron particles of ceramic powders in a way that evenly distributes the material, leaving no air gaps when the ceramic particles are sintered together. Additionally, the company can clear away as much of the liquid binder as possible. That way, when the 3D-printed objects are placed into a kiln for final sintering, there are no defects caused by air gaps in the final part.

The high-performance ceramics on display could be ultimately used in the biomedical field or for creating cooling channels in turbine fans, but this process can also be performed with any material that requires sintering. This means that ordinary clay and porcelain could be 3D printable with this type of MJF machine. It’s possible that even metal could be 3D printed using the MJF platform and, with such high-density, high-resolution parts, HP could really take on the industrial market.

Progressing through the HP booth at RAPID 2016, it slowly became clear just how big of an impact MJF could have on the 3D printing industry and manufacturing as a whole. Some may have been disappointed by the limited color and material capabilities of the first MJF systems, while others may have seen the first machines as a desire on the part of HP not to break its promise of a 2016 release date. Regardless of one’s opinion about the business, politics and marketing of a tech giant like HP, the technology itself really could lay the groundwork for the third industrial revolution many have come to associate with 3D printing.

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