When the computing and printing giant Hewlett-Packard announced its plans to enter the nascent market for 3-D printing earlier this week, it set the stakes by saying its technology could trigger a “new era of manufacturing.”
Most of the world’s attention on 3-D printing has focused so far on hobbyists who want to make their own do-it-yourself items, or on startups seeking to make mass-customized products aimed at everyday consumers. Normal, for example, makes custom headphones; Shapeways sells items as varied as jewelry and My Little Pony figurines.
HP is instead aiming at bringing 3-D printing to big industry. The concept device it showed off at an event in New York this week, called Multi Jet Fusion, fits not on a desk, but is about the size of a pair of household laundry machines.
And its technology is different too. First, it can print multiple different kinds of materials at once. Current 3-D printers can only use one material at a time, great for printing something simple and solid, say, a toothbrush. (The model pictured above was printed using HP’s technology.)
But if you wanted to print something a little more complex with moving parts, say an electric toothbrush, you’d have to first print all the individual parts — the handle, parts for the motor, the bristles — and then assemble them into the finished product. Printing with multiple materials creates the potential for producing a finished product — moving parts and all — at once.
HP can print not only multiple materials at once, but vary the physical properties of each of those materials as it prints. Our toothbrush handle can now have blue and red stripes. It could be textured in parts to allow a good grip. Some parts might be flexible, some more rigid. Inside, some of the material could conduct electricity, essentially becoming the internal wiring to power the motor. Suddenly, the notion of printing a finished electric toothbrush — and disrupting an industry — seems plausible.
And yet that’s not the point. The material costs to mass produce 3-D printed consumer products still can’t beat the conventional methods. It’s more appropriate for small runs of products — dozens or hundreds.
Maybe you want to build a small business selling customized electric toothbrushes to the hipster set. You might not be able to justify buying one of HP’s printers for that purpose, but you could take your designs to someone who has one you can use. One target of HP’s business plan is to sell these printers to what it calls the “central market.” Think a FedEx Kinko’s of 3-D printing, but with a more industrial bent.
Who else might buy them? Let’s say you already have a company that makes electric toothbrushes. You’ve invested in factories and the equipment, and you’re not going to throw it all away for a fleet of new 3-D printers.
Instead, the 3-D printer could help you keep those factories running by printing a steady stream of replacement parts for when that machinery breaks down. Ordering replacement parts might take days or weeks, which translates into lost sales, and keeping replacement parts on hand in inventory adds costs, too.
If you walk away from all this with a shrug, wondering why any of this matters, the following numbers should get your attention: Last year, manufacturing in the U.S. accounted for about $2 trillion worth of economic activity, or about 12 percent of the gross domestic product, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. In China, the world’s largest economy, manufacturing output was worth north of $3 trillion in 2011, according to the United Nations.
For HP, the strategy is simple: Capturing business that accounts for even the tiniest fraction of the world’s manufacturing activity could in time be worth billions, and billions at HP is real money.
When? That’s harder to say. HP has said that its Multi Jet Fusion technology won’t be ready for sale until 2016. As analyst Steve Milunovich of UBS wrote in a research note Thursday, “3-D printing won’t be material to HP for some time to come.”
In a few years, it could be.
Here’s an HP video explaining a little more.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.