Interview: HP’s Global Head of Metals on the Impact of HP Metal Jet
20 November 2018
HP is a company that is no stranger to making headlines: in 2016, it sent waves across the 3D printing industry with the launch of its Multi Jet Fusion technology.
Marking HP’s first foray into additive manufacturing, the new technology promised new possibilities for the production of industrial-grade functional polymer parts and prototypes on a commercial scale. Now, two years later, HP has launched its latest offering: HP Metal Jet, its new 3D printing technology for the high volume manufacturing of production-grade metal parts.
AMFG recently spoke with HP’s Global Head of Metals, 3D Printing Business, Dr. Tim Weber, to discover more about the company’s move towards metals and the wider implications of HP Metal Jet for end-part production.
Disrupting a $12 trillion industry
“Since launching our plastics business two years ago, we’ve been focused on providing a real value proposition to the market,” says Weber. “If we think about 3D printing today, the technology is still mostly used for prototyping and speciality production applications. If we take everything into consideration — hardware, materials, software and so on — the market is probably worth only 10 billion dollars. That’s only a fraction of the $12 trillion that the overall manufacturing sector is worth globally.”
HP’s vision is to disrupt the manufacturing sector through its 3D printing technologies and this includes the metal manufacturing sector. However, while HP Metal Jet forms part of this vision, there are challenges that first need to be overcome. Weber identifies 3 areas that HP is committed to addressing.
“First, if we’re to create a system that’s to be used to produce millions of parts, we have to make sure that it is completely robust and stands up to normal manufacturing environments. Alongside this, we also need to make parts that are good enough to be used as end parts for a variety of applications.”
Weber also points to challenges related to materials: “Material price is another crucial factor: the materials are very costly and manufacturing is all about cost. If you have a production method that provides a way to produce parts at a lower cost, most manufacturers will make the switch right away. But we need to make sure that the overall material costs are reduced.
“The second part to that is material selection. With thousands of plastics and different metal alloys available, we need to enable a streamlined approach. That’s why we’ve created an open materials platform for both plastics and metals to enable that.”
The starting point: HP Multi Jet Fusion
Before delving into Metal Jet, first it’s worth taking a look at HP’s journey towards additive manufacturing, which began with its Multi Jet Fusion technology.
HP Multi Jet Fusion uses a binder jetting process, whereby plastic powder is spread across the bed. A fusing agent, engineered to absorb infrared energy, is jetted across an area of the part that needs to be solidified using HP’s PageWide technology. The infrared energy is absorbed by the material, melting the plastics and slowly building up the part.
To date, the portfolio of the HP Multi Jet Fusion printers includes the 4200 and 4210, and the company has announced a smaller, integrated version of this system, the HP Jet Fusion 500/300 series, that can print in colour. Notably, Weber reports that one customer, Forecast 3D in the U.S., is currently producing parts into the millions, and now has 24 printers in place, running 24/7.
“With plastics, we’re making the leap to production,” says Weber. “Our goal is to democratise additive manufacturing, where users who were previously only prototyping can go straight to manufacturing with exactly the same technology.”
From plastics to metals
“3D printer manufacturers have to have superior economics that enable us to compete, not with other additive manufacturing companies, but with traditional methods like investment casting, metal injection moulding and CNC.”
HP’s Multi Jet Fusion technology has provided the perfect launch pad for Metal Jet.
However, the move toward metal 3D printing is not without its own challenges.
“Because this is about manufacturing, not prototyping, cost matters,” says Weber. “3D printer manufacturers have to have superior economics that enable us to compete, not with other additive manufacturing companies, but with traditional methods like investment casting, metal injection moulding and CNC. At the same time, we have to ensure that we can produce high-quality parts that meet standards using the technology.”
The binder jetting technology builds on the Multi Jet Fusion process and uses metal injection moulding (MIM) powders. Notably, Metal Jet is said to be up to 50 times more productive than comparable binder and laser sintering technologies on the market today, and is capable of producing isotropic parts that meet ASTM standards.
“What we did was take the fundamental Multi Jet Fusion platform and re-engineer the printer to work for metal powder instead of plastic powder,” Weber explains. “However, instead of jetting a fusing agent, we jet a binding agent. HP Latex Ink technology is what we are leveraging to create our binder because it makes really strong green parts and doesn’t take very much.”
“HP is probably the best digital printing company in the world. We use exactly the same technology, from an inkjet standpoint, in all of our printers. Over the course of 30 years, we’ve learned how we can jet all these different things using our thermal inkjet technology. Leveraging that depth of expertise, we’ve created a breakthrough binder – breakthrough in the sense that with metal injection moulding you typically have more than 10 % by weight binder that has to be burned out. In our case, we have less than 1%, which is an order of magnitude is less, making it faster, lower-cost and much simpler to sinter.“
Targeting mass production, HP has launched its system with stainless steel in the first instance. “We wanted to make sure that we perfected one material, end-to-end,” Weber explains. “It’s important to ensure that we have established process control and have met a set of tolerances that are required. We’ll soon broaden out into other variations of stainless steels like low-carbon steels and alloy steels. But since we had to pick one to start, we went with the 316I, which is a workhorse in the industry.”
Weber believes HP’s proprietary technology, which leverages both printing and binder, will be the key to unlocking a sustainable value proposition for metal additive manufacturing.
The power of strategic partnerships
Alongside the launch, HP also announced several strategic partnerships, with the aim of fully unlocking the potential of the HP Metal Jet for functional metal parts. One of the partners is GKN Powder Metallurgy, a large manufacturer of metal parts that produces around 13 million parts per day. The partnership has already led to several key industrial clients, including Wilo, a leading pump manufacturer and Volkswagen. HP and Volkswagen are implementing a multi-year plan to integrate Metal Jet into their manufacturing strategy.
The collaboration between Volkswagen, GKN Powder Metallurgy and HP has resulted in the ability to move quickly to assess the manufacturing of mass-customizable parts such as individualized key rings and exterior-mounted nameplates.
Volkswagen’s multi-year plan to use HP Metal Jet also includes the production of higher performance functional parts with significant structural requirements, such as gearshift knobs and mirror mounts. As new platforms such as electric vehicles enter mass production, HP Metal Jet is expected to be leveraged for additional applications such as the lightweighting of fully safety-certified metal parts.
The second notable partnership is Parmatech, which boasts 40 years of metal injection moulding experience. Primarily servicing the medical industry, the partnership offers a unique opportunity for HP to penetrate the sector.
“While we may be the world’s best printing company, we decided to partner with those who have expertise in producing metal parts for industry,” explains Weber. “With GKN, we’ll be able to work together to produce parts for all other automotive and industrial customers. Parmatech is very innovative and the medical industry represents a huge opportunity for steel. Our plan with both partnerships is to establish printers at their locations where they can start to engage with their customers with what we’re calling a Metal Jet Production Service.”
HP plans to use its production service to target key industries, which include automotive, medical and industrial sectors.
Looking towards the future
With HP entering the metal AM market, how does Weber see additive manufacturing evolving over the next 5 years?
“We’re ultimately moving towards the next industrial revolution where distributed manufacturing will play a key role.”
“I think it’s a really exciting time for the industry. 3D printing has been focused on prototyping and speciality production of plastics and metals for such a long time, but now we’ve reached a point where we’re starting to see faster adoption of the technology. This will only continue as we begin the switch from prototyping to manufacturing.
“We’re ultimately moving towards the next industrial revolution where distributed manufacturing will play a key role. The ability to print what you need, where and when you need it is going to have huge implications for world economies. HP is proud to be part of this revolution.”
The HP Metal Jet Production Service, where customers can upload, test, and qualify designs for mass production, and begin receiving parts, goes live in early 2019. HP Metal Jet commercial systems are set for general release in 2020, with a price point of less than $399,000.
To learn more about HP Metal Jet, visit: https://www8.hp.com/us/en/printers/3d-printers/metals.html