Gone are the days of “those who can’t do, teach”—replaced instead with “those who can do, lead by example,” especially in 3D printing. Industry powerhouse HP Inc. is certainly seeking to do and to lead, as it continues to invest in additive manufacturing as a strategic step forward. I appreciated the recent opportunity to speak to two key executives in HP’s global 3D printing operations to dive into the logistics of the business and how they see this technology as a viable solution for rethinking global manufacturing.
Nate Hurst, Chief Sustainability and Social Impact Officer, HP Inc., and J. Scott Schiller, Global Head of Customer and Market Development, HP 3D Printing, provide insights into corporate and tech strategic approaches in this two-part interview.
Schiller offers a perspective of HP’s internal strategies and how use of its own Multi Jet Fusion technology is impacting business operations at the global company, while Hurst looks outward into the impact on supply chain.
As ever, the messaging from HP was carefully curated and very on-brand as both execs discussed the potential not just for rethinking, but for reinventing. For 3D printing to truly take hold in manufacturing, the technology must prove viable in real-world conditions—and HP has been working to ensure that these capabilities are in place, integrating MJF into its own approaches.
“This is a technology, and in the end what it helps with is solving business problems,” Schiller says. “There’s a theme of solving business problems. The first one is prototyping: it’s still a big deal.”
Prototyping, of course, was the initial use for 3D printing, with terminology of “rapid prototyping” remaining synonymous with some of the technology’s earliest adopters. Applications have grown, and now touch on points throughout the product lifecycle; Schiller noted internal use of 3D printing for prototyping, tooling, manufacturing aids and guides, manufacturing, aftermarket/replacement parts and more.
Starting at the beginning, the capability for functional prototyping allows for a speedier time-to-market with more fine-tuning throughout the earliest stages of creation.
Having spoken recently to a customer, Schiller says that seeing the application of Multi Jet Fusion on-site “really enforced for me that for a company to do functional prototyping, what that means for them, and for us, is the ability to delay the cutoff point for when you have to make the tooling decision. It makes it so customers, as they’re refining their design, also have the opportunity to refine the design of the tool. There’s less revision of very expensive tool design changes, and they can ultimately get to production faster.”
The tooling created for production-scale manufacturing, including the molds used in injection molding, is a time- and cost-intensive process; shortening that cycle and allowing for greater design control speeds the process and removes the pain point common in applications where tooling must be changed.
Creation of tooling is a more important step in product lifecycle than many might realize—and a tougher one to predict, as manufacturers have shared that their ability to forecast is “extremely low.” Accurate forecasting of market reception to new products is a delicate art. With that understanding, HP and its customers have explored 3D printing’s ability to enable limited production quantities to test product concepts. Presenting the example of a clip that attaches a scanner to a computer, Schiller notes that market response was difficult to forecast, and in this case the user “could just print it up and test it.” Hands-on understanding of a new product concept allows for an informed production strategy.
“If it was going to be something that had a slow start, we could stay with 3D printing with Multi Jet Fusion for a long time, until it was ready to scale up. Conversely, in the case of huge demand, we would need to start on tooling to scale up,” Schiller says. “This is a common problem. Users want to test new concepts and new ideas, to add higher-value elements to their portfolio, and this is a tool that supports that.”
On the other end of the spectrum, he continues, an area where HP is receiving a great deal of feedback is in spare parts, aftermarket and end-of-life dynamics. The concept of a virtual inventory, storing files in digital form for on-demand manufacturing, “is already a reality,” he said, and is “something we can do in HP as well.” Internally, the company sees applications in its graphics business and has noted a strong pull across market verticals.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done to get that scaled up and mainstream, but we have good initial evidence that’s something both that the market demands and that the technology can support,” Schiller tells me.
HP walks the walk when it comes to its support of 3D printing for production parts; the 300/500 series of Jet Fusion 3D printers, introduced early this year, has more than 140 of its components 3D printed with Multi Jet Fusion technology.
“The unique thing about that machine is that we had already developed the 4200 platform, and with that it was great that we could get some parts created with Multi Jet Fusion — but in some ways we were building the airplane while we were flying it. In the case of the 300/500 series, we had our heads around the technology and had the machine fully available,” Schiller explains of the development process. “We could start from the beginning with design objectives, work with the design teams holistically on cascading implications of that, which are profound.”
“An easy way to think about it is: you have one technology to use for prototyping, functional prototyping, bridge production, even basic production; by the time you get to spare parts you don’t have to qualify any new changes. You flow them through the development process without disruption,” he continues. “The implications of that are still something we’re wrapping our heads around, but they’re very profound.”
Having the internal capabilities, and having already developed the 4200 system, allowed HP to learn about the full functionality of Multi Jet Fusion faster than they would have working solely with external customers. They also gained the ability to speak peer-to-peer, user-to-user with their customers. As Schiller notes, “our design engineers are talking with their design engineers about how they approach problems and how to be ready for change; it’s a game-changing approach for how to deal with customers.”
“It goes from a conversation that would have been limited to one that’s accelerated.”
This acceleration has resulted in a conversation in which HP is well-versed, as both a user and a producer of 3D printing technology. One specific example of a part made with Multi Jet Fusion that makes a major difference is an air duct. Traditionally, the air duct was made with about 20 different parts; through design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) and the capabilities of MJF, this part count was taken down to one single component—cutting costs by 30% and reducing the upfront capital expense for tooling by $190,000.
“What’s much more interesting and profound was that we were able to eliminate 20 points of failure, to eliminate complexity in the supply chain by eliminating all those parts, because if one of those parts doesn’t show up you don’t have the whole assembly,” Schiller adds of its further significance.
The HP design team had to first identify parts, either plastic or low-volume metal, and filter these by the size of the part and dimensional accuracy requirements, to discern which parts would financially and logistically make sense to 3D print. In the first appraisal, they came up with 20 parts. One thing the team is strict on, Schiller says, is only using their own technology “if it’s significant cost savings or design enhancement.”
Examining the parts, as well as area-based 3D printing in which the cost of each build is defined more by the size of the build than by each part inside, the team “saw good packing density and could take a different approach to packing.” Optimizing the build for batches of parts for the same machine, rather than a group of the same part that would then go into inventory, design engineers discovered that they could fit three sets of parts for one Jet Fusion 3D printer in one build, as they worked with Jabil. They transferred this plan to Singapore, where production takes place, and could produce full batches of parts on demand and take them directly to the machines for production. The team, Schiller explains, “got very clever about getting more parts in there, and over time it shifted from 25 parts to more than 140 parts, because of combining design engineering with manufacturing engineering together to think how best to take advantage of this technology.”
As HP and its customers have become more accustomed to the capabilities of additive manufacturing, they have been discovering the cascading implications of incorporating 3D printing into a full design lifecycle and the manufacturing process itself.
“The earlier in the design cycle you can think of adopting 3D printing, the higher the value the technology will ultimately have in its impact,” Schiller says.
With earlier integration into the design cycle, the conversation becomes more holistic and can impact the supply chain. The idea of adopting a new technology must be made “much more holistic and at a grander scale,” Schiller adds.
HP will be continuing this narrative: “For us, it’s definitely a journey. It’s still early days.”
As 3D printing continues to impact the design cycle and thus the global supply chain, the conversation will be continuing, becoming both broader and deeper.
We look to Hurst’s thoughts on the supply chain and sustainability perspective in part two of this executive conversation with HP.