HP to enter 3D printer game

By Pat Pilcher

HP have announced that they will be enterting the 3D printer market.
HP have announced that they will be enterting the 3D printer market.

At the Canalys Channels Forum in Bangkok, HP's CEO Meg Whitman announced that HP will enter the 3D printer market by mid 2014.

This news could be bigger than huge and might finally see 3D printing moving away from being the exclusive domain of high geekery and industrial design into the mainstream.

The move also makes considerable sense for HP, and this was echoed by Whitman who said "We are excited about 3D printing", adding that "HP labs is looking at it."

It appears that the big issues that HP's labs are looking to get to grips with 3D printing are speed (printing complex objects can take hours) and price (at the moment 3D printer hardware costs a bomb).

It does however appear that HP could be initially aiming their 3D printing efforts at 3D printing bureaux rather than home users with Whitman stating that home 3D printing is still some time away.

Either way the entrance of HP could not only bring some pretty big economies of scale into play, and could also lead to further competition as competitors including Canon, Epson and Xerox enter the 3D printing fray to capitalise on its potentially massive opportunities.

If history has shown us anything about technology, it is that more competition equals more innovation, innovation and competition drives prices down, and cheaper prices result in greater adoption.

My first experience with a colour inkjet printer was in the early 90s. Although I can't remember the model number or brand of the printer, it cost a bundle and could only print at 300DPI. The ink wasn't water proof and colours spread as the paper soaked up the ink.

A decade or two later Ink formulations and printhead designs have evolved to the point where it is becoming increasingly difficult for the average joe or joanne to tell the difference between a photo printed with an inkjet on photo paper and photos that have been professionally developed. It also isn't all that unusual to see home inkjet printers on special at computer stores for prices that are not much more than the ink cartridges they contain.

Should 3D printing eventually evolve along similar lines to the inkjet, the implications are boggling as long held notions of manufacturing and distribution could be turned on its head. At the moment if we want a particular object (say a dinner set), we have to either shop online or visit a shop and buy it. Underlying this is a complex system of manufacturing, shipping, warehousing and retailing.

Should affordable 3D printers that can print in colour at decent resolutions become the norm, shoppers could find themselves checking out a 3D model of the dinner set on a PC screen before pulling out a credit card or paypal account to buy it and download it.

Before printing it They could also customise it by choosing colours, motifs textures etc.

No shops, manufacturing or warehousing required. This hasn't escaped the attention of the piratebay who are already hosting what they call physibles - downloadable 3D models of objects that can be printed on a 3D printer.

Traditional notions of manufacturing long held by the likes of Henry Ford could also soon give way to micro level customisation. Ford's maxim "you can have any colour you want as long as it's black" is likely to give way to boutique micro customisation.

Changing colours, contours, shape or form could become a relatively straightforward process while 3D modelling skills becomes an increasingly desirable occupation.

At the moment 3D printing still has limitations. Scale is the first key limitation - Just as most home inkjets or laser printers can only print using A4 paper or smaller, similar limitations also apply to 3D printers. Most of today's models are roughly the size of a breadbox and limited to printing out smaller than breadbox sized objects. Another limitation comes in the form of materials. Most low-end 3D printers work by binding plastic granules.

This said, the range of 3D printable materials is growing. Many industrial 3D printers can now print using metal, rubber, and ceramics as well as plastic. Materials aside, the biggest limitation of all however is likely to be cost.

Even If 3D printers do become more affordable, I'd still wager that today's inkjet cartridge rort will carry over to 3D printing. Even though inkjet printers have plummeted in price, Inkjet cartridges can cost more than similar volumes of high end perfumes and there's little reason to assume that printer manufacturers will make the materials fed into a 3-D printer any cheaper.

There's also a bunch of other disruptive stuff that'll only become apparent as 3D printing evolves. Counterfeiting could become dead easy, and a 3D printer fuelled economy could also see 3D printable goods being pirated rather than downloaded and purchased. Hand crafted goods that commanded a stiff premium in the pre-3D print days could also plummet in price.

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