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HP Inc won't shake you down for ink in 3D printer era, says CTO

Profiteering? No no no, that's the old HP

Interview HP Inc is threatening to bring an era of open platforms to 3D printing, one it claims will turn the well used – and much criticised – ink toner supplies biz model on its head.

So how exactly does HP expect to print money when it is actually using thermo-plastics? There's one buzz word on the tip of the CTO's tongue – disruption.

The world’s largest seller of print will land into the 3D print world in the autumn when it launches the MultiJet Fusion; decades later than the specialists, and years later than HP itself once predicted.

The rhetoric is already building, though you’d expect nothing less from a seasoned exec like chief techie Shane Wall.

“We really believe with this technology that we have something incredibly disruptive… that will fundamentally change the industry,” he tells El Reg.

Everyone claims to have something disruptive these days. Few truly are, but industry folk are expecting big things of HP Inc given its heritage in paper print.

3D printing isn’t new but four things hampered growth, the CTO says: speed; price, quality of parts; and the closed nature of the industry. Wall claimed HP’s print engine will solve these restrictions by printing between ten and one hundred times faster, and it will be sold at circa 20 per cent of the cost of existing business machines.

Other advances made in MultiJet Fusion include printing at the voxel level – essentially a 3D pixel.

“We can change the characteristics of every voxel: the colour; the hardness; the flexibility; the translucency; and printed electronics.”

HP Inc’s answer to the fourth issue on the lack of open platform is to have (drum roll)… an open platform. This is a move away from what some may describe as the protectionist racket that HP et al masterminded for traditional toner cartridges.

“We’ll still have print and supplies but our model will be different; we will open up the platform so people can have other supplies that come in. They’ll [other suppliers] have access to our APIs through an SDK that allows them to programme to the printer itself, and we’ll allow people to come in and do very disruptive new materials that they wouldn’t have been able to do before.

“[This is] very different from HP and very game changing,” adds Wall.

Chris Connery, veep for global analysis and research at Context, agrees the open model was the way forward.

“Anything the 3D printer market can do to move away from the razor/razor blade model of 2D printing can indeed benefit adoption. Across the board, all agree that materials and materials science will play a large role in the future of additive manufacturing and if printer vendors give material scientists the ability to work their magic, this indeed opens the door for engineers to find new ways to leverage this technology,” he says.

HP Inc was already supposed to be a player in 3D print by now. HP CEO Meg Whitman said at the Canalys Channels Forum event in 2013 that it would launch products in mid-2014.

We ask Wall what happened. Why the tardiness? Apparently, HP Inc is, and always has been, right “on track”.

Right. Glad to clear that up, then.

The MultiJet Fusion is expected to launch with thermo-plastic materials available to print but other suppliers with more specialist applications are expected to cover gaps in HP’s market coverage. HP will go after specific sectors including low-volume manufacturing, retail and automative industries – and, potentially, medical.

“We don’t go after medical today because you’ve got a lot of regulations and the like but we do think there are partners who could benefit from doing that,” says Wall.

By far the “hottest” market at present is the metal side of 3D printing, says Context, “mostly made up by $1m + machines” but sales in the total professional space “struggled a bit in 2015”.

This was part of “coming down after the over-hype on 2013/14, compounded by the market looking forward to the entrance of HP as well as Canon, Ricoh and others in 2017,” says Connery.

Much as HP management and investors might be keen on a return to the good old days when people used more ink and the price of toner was compared to the margins achieved from selling expensive perfume or dealing in cocaine, they’ve likely gone forever.

No one wants to snort plastic or dab it behind their ears. ®

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