This new 3D printer can print its own parts

Hewlett-Packard’s introduction of a new 3D printing system could be a watershed for manufacturing, if its vision pans out.

Today, 3D printing is largely limited to making items like low-quality smartphone cases and toys by the handful. But HP says its new Jet Fusion 3D 3200 and Jet Fusion 3D 4200 printers are in another league and will make it possible to do “mass customization” for customers like BMW, and even do short-run manufacturing.

HP says up to 50 percent of the custom plastic parts for the Jet Fusion 3D printers, for example, will be printed and produced with the HP Multi Jet Fusion printer system itself.

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“The tagline is that we have a printer that’s printing itself.  We’re not doing it because we can, but because it’s cheaper versus traditional manufacturing,” Stephen Nigro, president of HP’s 3D printing business, told

BMW, Nike, and others will be early adopters. BMW is looking at part production and personal customization. “You can imagine a situation where your BMW is customized. I don’t know exactly what they’re doing, because it’s very confidential, but certain components in the car could be designed just for you,” Nigro said.

While HP’s Jet Fusion 3D 3200 is targeted at fast prototyping, the 4200 can also do short-run manufacturing.

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“And the short-run manufacturing is really what we’re pushing,” Nigro said. “When you get into [the] manufacturing [segment], that’s a 12 trillion dollar industry -- [though] we have a long way to go."

But HP appears to be off to a good start. "I think HP has a real game-changing technology on its hands here," Joe Kempton, an analyst at market researcher Canalys, said. "As long as the company can come through with the type of speed and low cost advantages that it has promised."

And higher volume production is the next stage for 3D printing. “There has been a general trend towards enabling 3D printers to have a much greater print load. For example, being able to print dozens of items simultaneously rather than a couple," Kempton said.

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That said, 3D printing will never fully replace conventional manufacturing. “Instead they will work in conjunction, with 3D printing always being better for smaller print runs,” he said.

HP is also touting that its 3D printing system can handle over 340 million voxels per second, giving it “radically faster” build speeds. And what’s a voxel? It’s like a pixel with volume. It represents a value on a grid in a three-dimensional space. Each voxel contains volumetric information that allows a manufacturer to build a part precisely.

The downside is that systems aren’t for consumers—at least not yet. For example, the Jet Fusion 3D 3200 Printer starts at $130,000, and pricing for the full end-to-end solution, which includes the HP Jet Fusion 3D 3200 Printer and Processing Station, starts at $155,000.

“We’ve made it very clear that it was more of an industrial-type machine 3D printer,” Nigro said. “There was a lot of, ‘don’t you guys get this [consumer] desktop trend? There you go again HP, you don’t get it.' But we were really clear in our convictions that the market wasn’t there with the current technology.”

The HP Jet Fusion 3D 4200 Printer will be available late this year, with the HP Jet Fusion 3D 3200 Printer in 2017.