At Formnext 2022, 3dpbm was given a tour of HP’s booth. HP took an effective approach when choosing how to exhibit this year – with loads of different application examples for their plastic and metal printing technology.
HP has been commercially printing plastic since 2016. However, this has previously been limited to derivatives of black. At Formnext, the company unveiled one of its latest milestones in plastic 3D printing – the ability to print in white.
With this milestone, HP is now enabling new post-processing capabilities, such as the ability to color the parts to match any brand image, as well as have a better surface quality look and feel compared to the previous solution. Users in the medical industry also tend to perceive white as cleaner, more sterile and more aesthetically suited when compared to colored parts.
HP’s plastic material is biologically-certified and can therefore be used for surgical applications (but not implants) and modeling as well as surgical equipment in small batch production – such as personalized insoles and surgical guides, for example.
In terms of industrial applications, HP’s plastic printing technology is used for the creation of end-of-arm tooling, motorboats, filters for water filtration systems, interior car parts, and the packaging industry, to name a few. In the consumer segment, HP is enabling the creation of bike saddles, helmets, goggles, and other protective gear and comfort-enabling objects.
The MetalJet S100 up close
When it comes to metal 3D printing, HP appears to have been making significant progress with major partnerships and application case studies.
“Plastic is almost like a lubricant, when you get it in your system – bearings and stuff work better. When it comes to metal – it’s electrical, it’s abrasive, it’s magnetic. And so we’ve had to make this much more robust,” according to Tim Weber, the Global Head of 3D Materials at HP, who leads the R&D teams in both Barcelona and on the West Coast of the United States.
The system that HP uses for metal printing, and the one that was exhibited at Formnext, the MetalJet S100, is designed to be modular – meaning that one can start with one printer and upgrade with different additions – and uses orthogonal printing to spread and sinter the powder, 100% of which is recycled, and ultrasonic blades that vibrate to ensure the powder fits uniformly. The powder system alone is designed to support six printers in production.
“Maybe you start with a printer for doing your development. That printer is also the printer you’ll scale with. You start adding more – you start adding the powder management and start adding the automation to get labor out of it from that standpoint. If you want to build a factory, you start replicating exact units that are already qualified rather than bringing in different units,” said Devin Mourey, Director of Engineering, and the lead engineer for all of HP’s metal applications, engineering, and process development. “In some ways, it’s kind of a miniature version of what intel does. Right? They have an exact copy. So they build this $10 billion fab and then they build another one that’s identical. It looks completely identical because when you’re trying to do process repeatability and process control if everything’s exactly the same, it makes it much easier to qualify.”
The MetalJet S100 printer is the fourth generation of its kind and has recently been upgraded to include a ‘hardcore transmission’ and a closed loop controller in the lift mechanism that enables printing at the single micron level. According to Devin Mourey, all these small upgrades here and there have resulted in an increase of as much as 50% in productivity compared to the earlier generations.
An advantage that HP has over many competitors is that of vertical integration. For example, the company makes about 400 million print heads per year. This enables HP to leverage the low cost per print head, and incorporate many more print heads into their machines, without it being as much of a financial burden compared to if competitors were to do the same. The result of this advantage is that “for every pixel where you’re putting a drop of binder, we actually put four drops of binder. So, if for some reason you’re missing one, this allows you to make sure you do not have a line across your part, which is pretty bad for the manufacturers,” said Devin Mourey.
“There’s a lot of intention to try to make it very easy for operators. So, for example, this build unit knows, digitally, what it is. So it knows the build when it loads over there, it knows what I’m trying to print with it. It loads the right amount of powder there when you move it to the printer. It knows how long it needs to cure. All of that intelligence is contained, digitally, inside the build boxes,” said Tim Weber. Of course, physically, the bold blue touch points only add to the ease of the user experience – lowering the barrier to train new people.
“Our digital workflow also enables the traceability of metal powder all the way to your parts, which is really important for medical, aviation, and even auto. In addition to making the workflow easier, some industries actually require this,” said Devin Mourey.
In terms of post-processing – “what you want to do is get the powder out, recycle it, run it all the way back there to get the parts ready to actually put into a sinter. There’s an Ultrasonic Bite Radar in there – it pulls the powder down, and, in a lot of cases, 95% of the powder comes off the parts,” said Devin Mourey.
“Removing the bulk powder around the parts allows an operator to dramatically improve the effectiveness. It also lets the powder get back into production very quickly, instead of having it tied up at a very manual processing step where somebody’s trying to reclaim all the material,” added Tim Weber while referring to the usual modus operandi of powder removal as, ironically, an ‘archaeological dig’.
Targeting new metal AM applications
HP’s metal printing technology is applied to four different segments – automotive, industrial, consumer, and medical.
Until now, the team has been focused on making their stainless steel (316L and 17-4 – the most prevalent materials in metal injection molding) printing technology as robust as possible, to ‘get people to trust this technology’. “That’s what the industry is comfortable with. Those two materials cover a huge number of applications in those four segments, and that’s why we chose those,” said Tim Weber. Although HP’s systems work with many different materials too.
Major OEMs such as John Deere and Schneider Electric, have chosen to use HP’s metal printing technology to transform the way they make products – from prototyping to serial production.
For example, Schneider Electric turned to HP to 3D print their electric filters to fit into breaker boxes that are used within the marine, defense, and industrial environments. Previously, “these filters were being made with sheet metal and nickel metal mesh and assembled in this extremely expensive process,” said Tim Weber. “This [HP’s printing technology] allowed them to reduce the size of the entire fuse box by 20%, which allowed them to pack more into the given space. And so the entire system became substantially cheaper and lighter weight by doing this.”
“We have a lot of people come to us and say I want to make 10,000 parts, 20,000 parts, 100,000 parts, and it allows us to point them to a company that can actually produce. Those companies [such as GKN, one of HP’s digital manufacturing partners, that is currently producing parts at scale] will ultimately buy machines from HP and produce parts from them,” said Tim Weber.
Another example of a major company using HP’s metal printing to produce final parts is the fuel bypass manifold for cold winter tractor conversion kits produced by John Deere, who, according to Tim Weber, “has been producing using additive for a very long time, for prototyping. This is their first ever production metal part, and the reason is that previously, it was unaffordable for them to actually do production with powder bed fusion and other techniques,” – until, through HP’s metal additive technology, it was proven to be a viable option.
Previously, in the automotive industry, HP’s technology has been applied to the creation of cosmetic and structural parts for companies like Volkswagen, for example.
How HP’s printing technology is applied really depends on the customer. “There are some companies that are more vertically integrated – so they’ll buy machines, and go through their own design, within their own business. Others will come to us and they’ll say, ‘we want to work with you on design for MetalJet’, and then they’ll work with one of our digital manufacturing partners, such as Parmatech, a company with a long history of producing with some of the world leading medical partners in metal injection molding, to have it produced,” said Tim Weber.
As an example of how HP caters to the consumer industry – the company partnered with Cobra Golf to create a putter in collaboration with the professional golfer, Bryson DeChambeau. Over the course of a couple of months, Bryson DeChambeau “went through many, many iterations, and tried all these different designs, but ultimately found one he liked. So it was this incredible power of being able to iterate with additive, find a design he liked, and produce the exact number of parts he wanted – which sold out almost instantly,” said Tim Weber. “Cobra had never made a putter before. So for all they knew, they weren’t going to sell very many. This gives them the flexibility now to scale it up or scale down based on whether or not they’re going to have successful SKUs. You’re going to see that same thing in jewelry and watches. Rather than making ten or 15 SKUs, figuring out which five SKUs sell, and then figuring out what to do with the inventory of the other ten SKUs – you’re going to figure out which SKUs work. You’re then going to make exactly those things. It is transforming the way people make consumer products.”
The case study applications we were privy to at HP’s booth at Formnext were a select few, and only the tip of the proverbial 3D printed iceberg. However, what we do know for certain is that the company is making a noteworthy contribution to the adoption of AM technology, across major market segments.