It has been five years in the making (it should have been four, but the COVID pandemic changed the initial plans). From IMTS 2018 to IMTS 2022, from Stephen Nigro’s first announcement to this year’s official launch: HP Metal Jet technology is here, as the new Metal Jet S100 3D printer becomes fully available. The era of metal AM for large batch production, in mass segments such as automotive and consumer products, has begun.
Even through inevitable ups and downs, ever since HP introduced its polymer AM technology, MultiJet Fusion, the AM market has not been the same. Competitors in thermoplastic additive manufacturing have not disappeared, in fact, they are generating more or less the same revenues as they did before. However the overall polymer AM market has grown significantly because many new adopters have embraced the technology attracted by the high productivity and high-value proposition of HP’s offering.
HP 3D Printing now expects to do something very similar with Metal Jet technology, HP’s own version of metal binder jetting. Compared to the polymer business, there are similarities and there are differences. MJF was the first high productivity planar, thermal polymer powder bed fusion process to be marketed however it is not the first to have been invented. HSS, a very similar technology, had already been in development at Xaar and has since been adopted by Stratasys and voxeljet on their own production systems.
Metal binder jetting, on the other hand, has been around for many years, with several other companies either marketing the technology already or getting ready to do so. Based on patents originally developed at MIT, metal binder jetting, in general, has been developed and marketed primarily by American companies looking to scale metal AM into mass production, as an alternative to the primarily German-driven metal powder bed fusion approach.
A competitive market
In its effort to build market dominance in metal binder jetting, HP is going to square off against three main competitors. The first and most established is the Desktop Metal group, which combines metal binder jetting technologies developed internally with contributions from the inventor of metal binder jetting Eli Sachs, and those marketed by current metal binder jetting market leader ExOne, which was acquired in 2021. For several years ExOne was the only company with commercial metal binder jetting systems on the market and today the Desktop Metal group holds a significant market lead.
The second competitor, the Markforged group, also originating in the greater Boston area, is very similar in its structure. The company is a direct competitor of Desktop Metal in the bound metal filament deposition segment, which both companies pioneered and helped to build. Both companies were able to raise significant capital by going public via a SPAC merger and both companies made significant acquisitions to accelerate the development of the metal binder jetting business. Markforged acquired Swedish company Digital Metal from the Hoganas group. Along with ExOne, Digital Metal offered metal binder jetting capabilities for many years. Where ExOne focused on large metal prototypes and tools, Digital Metal focused on large batches of small, precise parts. However for several years Digital Metal only offered its technology as a service and only started marketing a system in 2019. This still means that both Markforged and Desktop Metal are already present with commercial products in the global market.
The third competitor, GE Additive, is a bit behind. The company, which entered the metal AM market in 2016 with the high-profile acquisition of EBM company Arcam and laser PBF company Concept Laser, is also expected to launch a commercial metal binder jetting system, currently known as the H2, and has already demonstrated the viability of certain automotive production applications with beta customers. There are also other potential competitors with similar technologies, such as, for example, California-based 3DEO, active in mass production of low-cost parts via internally developed systems, however, the MBJ hardware battle will be fought mainly among these four companies.
How is HP expecting to emerge in this highly competitive context? 3dpbm was invited, together with a small group of analysts, to HP 3D printing’s center in Sant Cugat, near Barcelona, for a hands-on preview of the system’s capabilities and an overview of the company’s go-to-market strategy going forward.
Pushing the build envelope
The first element of HP’s strategy replicates the company’s approach to the polymer 3D printing segment. It consists in targeting the entire manufacturing industry and competing with other manufacturing technologies for a much larger pie, rather than other metal 3D printing processes. Here, as explained by Ramon Pastor, now Global Head and General Manager at HP (and the man behind both the MJF and Metal Jet go-to-market plans), is to leverage Metal Jet as a means to transition from manual assembly to digital manufacturing. This means reducing the dependency on hard-to-find skilled laborers while addressing challenges related to the supply chain, both of which are very pressing issues in this particular time period. In addition, as a 3D printing process that does not require supports, metal binder jetting, in general, can enable engineers to fully exploit the geometric benefits of AM in terms of both complex geometries and custom subassemblies, with a reduced environmental impact compared to subtractive and formative processes. This approach is not only strategic for HP and AM, it is necessary. A qualified workforce for manual labor intensive tasks is getting harder to find for many companies and labor costs are too high in the West. In an ideal scenario, this does not mean taking jobs away, it means shifting them away from manual labor. It is an inevitable trend for many reasons. Efficiently redistributing wealth is a different matter, one that belongs to political decision makers.
The second element, the actual Metal Jet 3D printing process, is perhaps where HP believes it has the biggest advantage. The company’s unique position as a global leader in digital printing processes is exploited in at least three different ways. The first is by driving superior customer value when compared with traditional metal manufacturing processes, which of course applies to certain specific part geometries. The second is with respect to other metal 3D printing processes, where metal binder jetting in general and Metal Jet in particular aim to offer productivity levels that are up to ten times higher, in the build phase alone. In addition, metal binder jetting can, in theory, use many of the same powders used in established MIM (metal injection molding) processing, which can shorten the time requirements for qualifying new materials. The third advantage that HP expects to be able to exploit is specifically based on its unique decades-long experience in the development of industrial thermal inkjet printing technology. This means that HP counts on having both the most efficient printheads on the market (1200 dpi, 4x nozzle redundancy, advanced error detection, high-speed calibration, easy to replace) and the most effective binders. HP’s latex binders feature long polymer chains packed compactly into particles dispersed in the liquid phase. This results in low residual carbon, low-temperature cure along with higher accuracy, finish quality and green part strength.
The final element, the end-to-end Metal Jet workflow, is the most challenging to implement because it goes beyond the printing itself and is of fundamental importance to scaling metal 3D printing into mass production. Leveraging many lessons learned with MJF technology, HP is launching the S100 Metal Jet system together with dedicated, HP-branded machines for powder management, curing and powder removal. Designed to support multiple printers, the Powder Mixing and Sieving unit improve process economics by efficiently mixing and controlling the addition of fresh materials, and automating powder loading to the build unit. The Powder Removal unit also improves process and labor economics, while enabling a clean and safe work environment. Multiple units can be added to increase productivity.
The only aspect of the workflow which is not currently managed by HP is the sintering phase, which requires highly specific knowledge. For this reason, HP is working closely with experts such as Elnik systems on sintering. When digital additive mass production will be implemented, the company will also require more complex systems for part handling and sorting but this will probably have to be explored through machines such as those introduced by companies like AM Flow.
From materials to mass production
Up to this point we have talked about the technology as a strategic advantage for HP to emerge in the metal AM market. Now it’s time to discuss what HP considered the key drivers of Metal Jet technology into manufacturing, or, in other words, the elements that will pull the transformation of materials into actual digital parts. As is generally the case, the strategy leading to adoption and industrialization starts from the materials. Using MIM powders can accelerate the deployment and qualification of new materials but this does not mean that introducing a new material is immediate. HP Metal Jet is entering the market with two materials, both based on stainless steel: 316L and 17-4PH. These are respectively the most common austenitic and precipitation hardened (PH) stainless steels used for powder-based AM processes today and some of the most common metals used in all manufacturing. These steels are expected to have a similar role in Metal Jet as nylon (PA12) did in MJF: cover a wide range of large batch applications in segments not currently addressed by metal AM, such as automotive mass production and broadly accessible consumer products. Steels will be followed by an expansion phase with new metals and alloys, all while working with large clients on the development of custom materials based on application demand.
Applications are, in fact, the next key element of HP Metal Jet’s industrialization strategy. After developing successful application production case studies with clients such as Volkswagen and GKN during the beta testing and initial rollout phase of the S100 machine, HO signed a new deal with Schneider Electric. The company wants to continue strategically working with OEMs who own application IPs to develop and architect customized DfAM and supply chain solutions. HP itself is going to develop and expand the market for immediate applications, mainly in stainless steel, for filtration, hydraulics, medical devices and robotics (as well as some consumer products). Finally, HP will work with contract manufacturers (CMs) to further industrialize the design process, produce parts on demand and offer a local supply chain solution to OEMs.
The application of all these aspects is driving the industrialization of Metal Jet technology. It began with the completion of the alpha program that was first announced in 2018 and it continued through the implementation of actual serial production at manor OEMs, delivering thousands of parts per month. It was completed with the introduction of device monitoring based on machine data through API and the development of production automation (via powder management and removal). Now, HP is go for launch. Next stop: focus on applications and the expansion of the Metal Jet manufacturing network.