HP’s new Jet Fusion 3D Printing System, announced last month at the 2016 RAPID 3D printing and additive manufacturing conference in Orlando and set to reinvent how companies prototype and produce functional parts, started out as an under-the-radar collaboration between a small group of researchers drawn from HP Labs and HP’s printing business group.
Company leaders had observed the 3D print industry from its inception, but had yet to arrive at an approach that they could fully support, explains Lihua Zhao, senior research manager and lead for HP Labs 3D Print research. But four years ago, four engineers in HP’s Barcelona print business research lab began talking with several counterparts in HP Labs.
“They had zero budget and were just doing this as a side project in addition to their regular work,” Zhao notes of the original team of seven researchers, “but they thought 3D printing could be hugely valuable for HP if they could organically grow a new approach to the technology from within the company.”
The group started out by reviewing existing 3D printing technologies, seeking in particular to understand why the sector had failed to grow as fast as analysts had originally predicted. Out of that work came a research plan aimed at making the printing process faster, cheaper, more reliable, and more consistent in terms of quality.
They were soon ready to pitch the concept to senior HP executives and quickly received a green light to develop what became the Jet Fusion process.
Once the project was official, HP Labs researchers began sharing their extensive expertise in materials science with their print business peers - suggesting both materials from which 3D objects could be built and functional agents that would help fuse layers of those building materials together with good edge definition. “Within just a few months, we had transferred that knowledge to our business unit colleagues in San Diego, who then started the hard work of making it work in an actual product,” Zhao recalls.
At the same time, the HP Labs team began applying its expertise in 2D print research to the 3D space. HP Thermal Inkjet printers lay down tiny, pixel-like dots with extraordinary precision and speed. The new Jet Fusion printers use similar technology to place units called “voxels” (a contraction of “volumetric pixel”) with the same control, making it possible to manipulate the properties of the material being printed in new ways.
Chemistry, materials science, and processes continue to be major areas of focus for HP Labs, as researchers look to broaden the range of materials that can be 3D printed and thereby open the technology to many new kinds of applications.
“Looking ahead, we’re asking how we can use our understanding of fundamental chemistry, physics and materials science to use voxel control to build 3D devices and parts that are truly multi-propertied, multi-functional, and made from multi-materials. ” says Zhao.
3D printing is an integrated solution, spanning materials, hardware, and software, and therefore rewards an interdisciplinary approach.
“Everyone on our team is coming at this from a different background,” Zhao adds. “And we’re continuing to work with our business group partners in Barcelona, San Diego, Vancouver, and Corvallis to push the technology forward, demonstrate potential possibilities and feasibilities, and ensure that this exciting new technology is continually advanced.”