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HP out to prove 3D printing is ready for wider production

Kerri Jansen | PLASTICS NEWS

Global computer maker HP Inc. is predicting open materials development and consistent build times will be the boost 3D printing needs for wider application in automotive and other industries.

The HP Jet Fusion 3D 4200 printer, which began shipping last year, is designed for commercial uses such as manufacturing automotive parts. (Its counterpart the HP Jet Fusion 3200 is scaled for prototyping and shorter production runs.)

HP based the printer on its existing thermal inkjet printing technology, said David Tucker from the market development group in HP's 3D printing division. The technology uses a powdered plastic material, but unlike selective laser sintering processes in which a single energy source traces each layer of the print to bond particles together, HP's printer uses a carriage of inkjet heads to build a whole layer in a single pass. The inkjet heads deposit a fusing agent into the powder in the correct shape, and then an overhead heat lamp melts the material where the fusing agent has been applied.

Because each layer takes the same amount of time to build regardless of complexity, Tucker said, the build times are more consistent than if a laser were tracing every part. And for large builds -- making 20 gears at once instead of one, for example -- the process could be up to 10 times faster than SLS, the company says.

"Whether or not we have one part on every layer, or we have it completely built out with parts, the amount of time to build that platform is the same," Tucker said. "The amount of time it takes for an inkjet head to go across the bed and back to the starting location and fuse is consistent, whereas with every other process, those layer times are not consistent."

HP is relying on its customers to help develop the variety of materials needed to make the process available for a wider range of applications, through what the company calls the HP Open Platform. German materials supplier Evonik was the first to introduce a material certified for the printer, a powder based on nylon 12 that is currently available for use on the model 4200. A material based on nylon 11 is also planned.

Using an available materials development kit, customers can develop materials to their own specifications, which are then sent to HP to be certified for use with the Jet Fusion system.

"We're a printing company. We have people who have some vertical knowledge, but in terms of the very nitty-gritty specifics of performance, different applications in different spaces, we rely heavily on our partners," Tucker said. "... They prove out the application, prove out the material specifications, and then we develop custom writing systems to be able to fuse those materials inside of the Jet Fusion system."

California 3D printing service provider Forecast 3D will be the first to demonstrate large-scale production using HP's Jet Fusion printers. The company installed 12 of the 4200-model printers in a new 3D Manufacturing Center at its headquarters in Carlsbad, outside San Diego. A news release indicates the center, which opened in July, is capable of producing more than 600,000 end-use production parts per week.

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