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HP's first 3-D printers are finally here

With a starting price of $130,000, they're not for hobbyists.

HP Inc.

It's been 19 months since the computing and printing giant Hewlett-Packard first declared its intention to enter the market for 3-D printing. Today, the wait is over.

HP Inc. — the PC and printing portion of the old company that emerged from last year's corporate split — today announced what it calls the first production-ready commercial 3-D printing system, one that it intends to spearhead a years-long campaign to remake manufacturing.

It's called the HP Jet Fusion 3D Printing Solution, and the company says the two models it has introduced are aimed at model shops and 3-D print service companies. (They'll hit the market later this year and early in 2017 with prices starting at $130,000.) Companies like Nike and the automaker BMW have been trying it out. Nike sees possibilities in personalizing its shoes and other athletic wear. BMW wants better ways to build prototypes.

HP hopes to go big in 3-D printing over time, says its CTO, Shane Wall. "This is not a conventional 3-D printing play," he said in an interview with Recode. There is, he says, an overall global market for manufacturing that's worth $12 trillion. HP is going after two key pieces of that now. Before a product is manufactured at mass scale, it first has to be modeled and prototyped, often a slow and costly process. Second, certain products that are manufactured in relatively small numbers — parts in industrial machinery or aircraft — could be turned out on demand, he said.

HP's 3-D printing technology is a little bit different from the usual offerings: It can print using multiple materials or multiple colors at the same time.

This makes the future of 3-D printing as a tool for small-scale manufacturing a lot more interesting. Here's a simple example: Imagine printing an entire electric toothbrush, including the handle, the internal motor with all its moving parts, the internal wiring and the bristles all in one go.

HP Inc.

There are a few other 3-D printers that use multiple materials at once. Stratasys can do it, and researchers at MIT last year demonstrated a $7,000 printer assembled with off-the-shelf parts that can print using up to 10 distinct materials at once. In the future, HP hopes to add the ability to print objects embedded with intelligence — that electric toothbrush could have some smart sensors to tell you if you missed a molar.

Down the road, HP sees the printer as the machine that manufactures mainstream consumer products, but with a twist. That electric toothbrush will be the color you choose, with a handle that fits your hand and with bristles as soft as you specify. As Wall put it: "You'll buy a digital design, and then customize it as you like, and then print it out instantly."

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