IMTS 2018 kicked off in Chicago yesterday and there is no denying that there are three words on everyone’s lips: HP Metal Jet. HP Inc., which revealed some time ago it was working on developing a metal 3D printing technology, officially announced the new Metal Jet platform yesterday.
We got the chance to speak to one of the key players in the HP Metal Jet’s development, HP Global Head of 3D Metals Tim Weber at IMTS, to learn more about the breakthrough technology.
Davide Sher: You ran the materials department for HP’s polymer technology—how did that play into the metal, if at all?
Tim Weber: Let’s just say, over the last five years, I’ve learned a lot. I took what i knew in polymers, but when we started working with metal it was completely different as far the materials science. I have a broad engineering background, which has leant itself well to figuring things out, but I did have to learn a lot of new things in the last couple of years.
The reality is, we were doing investigations into ceramics and metals and printed electronics years ago. It’s not like it’s just popped out of nowhere—we’ve been working on it in HP Labs for awhile and even while we were doing polymers.
DS: Are you still looking at ceramics? And if you are, would it be the same technology applied to ceramics?
TW: Most of our ceramics stuff is still at a very low level of investigation; it’s a different technology altogether. It still leverages our ink jet ability, but it’s a little bit different.
DS: How does this technology compare or differ from competing technologies (in laser and binder jetting)?
TW: First and foremost, the economics of a laser-based system, where you basically have a point that is scanning back and forth, is very expensive and very slow. These factors make it suitable for very high-value applications like titanium and aircraft. The key to binder jetting technologies is that it’s an area process. That means, rather than a single point, you basically spread an entire layer and then you apply binder.
And of course, that leverages what HP is good at: we’re the best printer company in the world. We are experts in page-wide technologies; we have a printer that’s basically as wide as this room. In other words, it’s a scalable technology and we know how to do that. So for us, we’ve been able to leverage our expertise in jetting to develop a binder technology. This approach wins economically because it’s an area process. We win because we know how to make printers and we can take advantage of that.
One of the things we can do—because we’re vertically integrated—is use multiple rows of nozzles, because it’s very low cost for us and it also gives us greater productivity and reliability. We’ve learned that if you have a missing nozzle, the human eye is very good at seeing a line through your image and we think having a missing nozzle in a manufactured part is bad as well. So we can bring redundancy to make sure that doesn’t occur. And we can leverage 20 years of experience to achieve this.
DS: So the increased speed of HP’s Metal Jet technology is based on the company’s specific ability to make better jetting heads?
DS: Are you leveraging experience from HP’s MJF technology into this technology?
TW: Oh absolutely. We learned a lot of things from MultiJet Fusion and what it takes to bring that into production. We were able to take a lot of these lessons—not only from our inkjet technology but also our core printer assets—and were able to leverage them and move ahead with Metal Jet faster.
DS: Looking at materials, what materials are you planning to introduce first?
TW: We’ll start with stainless steels because frankly, they’re easier to sinter. Fundamentally, though, any material that’s metal injection molded today, where you basically have it in powder and you have a sintering recipe, we’ll be able to print. But we’ll focus on the steel families first.
DS: And what are the main applications you’re targeting with Metal Jet?
TW: Automotive, industrial and medical are probably the main ones. I didn’t bring my medical parts to IMTS—they tend to be quite a bit smaller—but we’re talking surgical instruments, not really things that stay in the human body, but things you might use for surgery or in a doctor’s office. We think those are the three verticals that make the most sense for Metal Jet. Both from the volume and the break-even standpoint.
DS: So you’re not looking to replace laser-based technologies, you’re more looking to offer a complementary technology to fill certain applications that they wouldn’t be able to do?
TW: I don’t think anybody’s talking about replacing. I mean, there are hundreds of ways to make metal parts. I really think we’re just bringing a new capability, allowing folks to do something they couldn’t do before, which is to create small, very complex parts. We’re expanding people’s business and what they can do. Not to mention, you can do it in days instead of months and you can leverage lightweighting, take advantage of fluid mechanics and heat transfer. I think we’ll be able to do things you can’t do any other way.
DS: In the automotive industry especially there’s a lot of interest around aluminum. Can Metal Jet be used with aluminum? Are there particular challenges in processing aluminum with binder-based technologies?
TW: There are challenges. If you look at stainless steels, because we’re using metal injection molding powders, we’re dealing with particle sizes of 10 microns or smaller. If you go to aluminum, 10 microns becomes a combustible material. We could move to aluminum and work to make the atmospheric pressure inert, but we can move a lot faster with something like steel that doesn’t require that level of safety precaution.
And, frankly, because aluminum is so cheap, it’s pretty easy to machine and people are used to doing that from a CNC standpoint. We will get there, but we’ll let the market demand it.
DS: Can you tell me a bit about how you expect to structure the HP metal division?
TW: We’re leveraging the same sort of structure we have in the 2D world, which bases technology development on the West Coast. That’s where we’re understanding the material science, developing the printheads. Our 3D printers are made in Spain, largely because they’re the ones that did a lot of the graphics.
DS: I was thinking a lot about the idea of building a distribution network for Metal Jet, but you’re approaching this in a different way than with MJF. You’re starting with the service and then there will be broad availability in 2021. How come you took a different approach with metal than with polymers?
TW: I’d say because we’re learning and I want to get customer feedback. We’re trying to take the approach of a classic startup which is get out there and learn fast and pivot. What I didn’t want to do was stay in the back room and work for two years and come out with a printer and say ‘Ta-da! is this what you want?’ I’d rather start iterating. And even in the partnerships we already have, we’re already learning what works and what doesn’t. That’s kind of the approach we’ve taken. And, because we can leverage our plastics printer, we’re farther ahead.
We have 3D printers and we’re going to have factories set up in GKN and Parmatech starting in 2019.
DS: Are you considering expanding the number of service partners that you have now?
TW: They’re not exclusive and we probably will expand over time. But I think two is a good place to start. We covered the verticals that we think make the most sense for our technology.
D: Do you expect that there will be other systems from competitors before HP’s Metal Jet technology is broadly available? And if that happens, would you consider accelerating the release?
TW: I don’t know. Of course, there are a lot of competitors out there, but I can’t speculate as to what they’re going to do.
Spending my whole life in R&D, I’m always looking for ways to accelerate things. But the reality is, I’m going to release a printer that has the expectations of an HP printer, which is uptime, reliability and supportability. In other words, when you buy it, it runs, and I don’t want to compromise that. These early machines will have HP engineers glued to them as a sort of a substitute for that.
DS: Going back to materials technology a little bit. One very interesting thing about MJF is the voxel level control of the printer. Do you still have that with Metal Jet?
TW: Oh absolutely. We have basically demonstrated the ability to jet metal nanoparticles. So you can take materials—maybe not stainless—but other materials and actually change the phase. So you could have a softer material on the inside and harder material on the outside.
DS: I guess this will only become available down the line?
TW: It doesn’t have to be! For us, adding another row of inkjet nozzles is pretty straightforward.
DS: It would have to be based on nanoparticles, I guess. I know XJet’s technology is based on nanoparticle jetting, so it would be something similar to that?
TW: I think there are other things you can do too. There are other things you can put into steels to change the phase.
DS: So a little bit like what’s happening with the polymers?
TW: Yep, exactly.