Mar 27, 2017
“HP reveals next move in making 3D printing competitive with injection molding”
By Norbert Sparrow, Plastics Today
HP (Palo Alto, CA) has a storied past, but it may have an even more glorious future if it is able to deliver on its vision of industrial-scale 3D printing that can rival injection molding. Its opening salvo in achieving this long-term ambition came just about one year ago, when it unveiled the HP Jet Fusion 3D Printing Solution, which prints quality parts up to 10 times faster and at half the cost of current 3D printers, according to HP. The newest milestone came last week, when it launched its 3D Open Materials and Application Lab at its sprawling facility in Corvallis, OR. HP invited several journalists, myself included, and analysts to tour the lab and to lay out its strategy for embedding 3D printing within the $12 trillion manufacturing sector.
The Corvallis facility, a stone’s throw from Oregon State University’s Reser Stadium, was the birthplace of thermal inkjet technology some 30 years ago, and remains a hotbed of innovation, where material scientists and engineers design, test and build printheads, silicon wafers and thermal inkjet printer heads. Right now, all eyes are on the capabilities of its additive manufacturing system and the development of compatible materials.
Multi Jet Fusion is the culmination of decades of research, Timothy Weber, PhD, Vice President and General Manager of 3D Materials and Advanced Applications, told journalists during the site visit. “The total market for 3D printing is around $5 to $6 billion,” said Weber. “The market wasn’t big enough to interest a $50+ billion company like HP, and we didn’t have a technological differentiator,” he added to explain why the company waited as long as it did before dipping its toe in the additive manufacturing pond. That changed with the development of Multi Jet Fusion technology, which has the potential to compete with conventional plastics processing techniques, and the ability to engineer materials at the voxel level.
The mighty voxel
HP describes the voxel as a volumetric pixel. With Multi Jet Fusion, HP can manipulate materials at the voxel level by dosing liquid functional agents in the powder bed as the parts are built, explained Mike Regan, Materials Director on Weber’s team. “After we spread the powder [during the Multi Jet Fusion process], we pattern with our liquid fusing agent. At that point in time, we can can also decide which voxel we want to address with additional agents—color, plasticizer, an electrical component or something else—resulting in a part that is built up not just with its mechanical properties but other physical properties, as well.”
The possibilities are tremendous, but the problem remains that only a handful of materials are suitable for 3D printing compared with the thousands of options that are available to injection molders. That is an abiding obstacle that 3D printing technology has faced in the industrial manufacturing space. HP’s open materials platform and the new lab are designed to address this.
“We are not a materials company,” Weber said during the site visit. So, HP enlisted materials companies Arkema, BASF, Evonik and Lehman & Voss to develop new materials and refine them through its materials certification process. This is just the start, stressed Weber: Fifty more partner companies are waiting in the wings, and HP envisions that many more will want to take advantage of this opportunity over time. A key incentive is what HP calls “the world’s first state-of-the-art laboratory to help companies develop, test and deliver the next generation of materials and applications for 3D printing,” which was unveiled last week.
The four-step program
HP engineers took us on a tour of the 3500-square-foot lab’s four-station (plus one) material development and certification process, which can be summarized as follows:
- The Material Development Kit (MDK) and Material Build Unit Tester. The MDK is a test bed, which helps to determine the most-appropriate powder for use in Multi Jet Fusion technology. HP today announced publicly the availability of the MDK, which was developed in collaboration with SigmaDesign. The system facilitates early screening of powder materials targeting certification under the HP platform. It is available at a pre-order price of $24,150; accessories include replacement coupons, additional rollers with various surface finishes and a vision system that automates test coupon analysis.
- Small quantities of fused powder are printed in the process test bed. Described during the tour as a proxy for Multi Jet Fusion, this station highlights how the process is used to develop print recipes for new powders.
- The Big Kahuna of the four-stage process, station three demonstrates how the technology is applied to the material on an HP Jet Fusion 3D 4200 machine. The powder is spread on the bed, patterned with a fusing agent and bonded via a fusing lamp, after which the bed is lowered and the process repeats until the finished part has been built.
- At this point in the process, metrology and powder characterization tools enter the picture, highlighting powder and final part properties.
- This “bonus” station is equipped with a next-gen multi-agent voxel test bed, where HP engineers can test color capabilities and voxel-level control, for example. Texture, mechanical and electrical properties, “smart” features and more can also be controlled at the voxel level.
Thus far, Evonik has developed a polyamide (PA) 12 powder, the first material certified for the Multi Jet Fusion platform, which will be initially available in May, followed shortly by full commercial availability. A PA-11 powder is in the works, and elastomeric and flame-retardant materials are also in the pipeline.
Speaking at Corvallis, Sylvia Monsheimer of Evonik addressed the common vision her company shares with HP. “Prototyping and 3D-printed Yoda heads are not very interesting to a company that ships truckloads of materials,” explained Monsheimer. “This partnership and the open materials platform allow us toconsider projects that otherwise would not be possible” and that has a real potential for industrialization. BASF’s Kara Noack, also in attendance, added that Multi Jet Fusion technology, at this stage, is “a very good fit for under-55,000-unit production runs,” applications where it doesn’t make economic sense to invest in tooling. And, as with all additive manufacturing technologies, it enables “impossible” designs.
Ben Mergen of SigmaDesign, which participated in the development of the test beds, noted that design engineers well-versed in 3D printing technology are now coming through the system. “They are not bound by the old design rules. The moment is perfect for this technology,” said Mergen.