HP’s Christoph Schell dreams in 3D

The president of 3D Printing and Digital Manufacturing anticipates a sustainable future and how consumers — and the planet — will benefit from the fourth industrial revolution.

By Roland Jones — May 23, 2019

Any parent whose child needs orthodontia knows that there are two kinds of pain that come with the traditional teeth straightening process. There’s the unavoidable pain of moving canines and cuspids, and then there’s the financial pain of paying for it.

Christoph Schell, a 21-year HP veteran who took the helm 3D printing unit last year, notes, “For families with more than one kid, it can be a huge burden,” with costs for his own two kids' treatment exceeding $10,000. An estimated 80 percent of Americans could benefit from orthodontic care, yet only 1 percent receive it each year, with cost being the biggest issue.

Schell, a 21-year HP veteran, took the helm of the company’s 3D printing unit last year.

Schell, a 21-year HP veteran, took the helm of the company’s 3D printing unit last year.

This week saw the announcement of the HP and Smile Direct Club partnership, which aims to significantly lower the cost of dental alignment with a direct-to-consumer model. Instead of going to an orthodontist, patients take a mold of their bite at home and create an imprint of their teeth, which becomes the basis of a 3D-printed mouth mold for aligners that progressively straighten teeth over time at about a third of the cost of traditional braces. SmileDirectClub is starting up the largest Multi Jet Fusion factory in the country to produce more than 50,000 unique mouth molds per day.

On the heels of this partnership, Schell says that disrupting the $12 billion orthodontics industry is one way 3D printing technology will radically improve options available to consumers, making the manufacturing of goods more efficient and sustainable while enabling faster turnaround times. From parts for automakers like Volkswagen and BMW, to a myriad of industrial parts, to consumer products like custom inserts for shoes, 3D printing is at the heart of a larger economic transformation called the fourth industrial revolution, which signals a massive shift in the way we will design, manufacture and consume goods. 

But no one company can do it alone — it takes a “village” of partners and other companies. That’s why Schell is not only building a business that’s set to further scale its disruptive Multi Jet Fusion technology,  but is also building out a new community to make it happen.

“New technology innovations will be required, new partnership models will emerge, and new modes of doing business will unfold,” says Schell, who started at the company as an intern and rose to head the 3D printing unit after holding senior management roles across the globe, most recently as President of the Americas. “You have all kinds of different stakeholders across industry, academia and politics coming together to accelerate and to make it work,” he says. We sat down with Schell, who is now based in Palo Alto, California, ahead of the SmileDirectClub partnership announcement to hear how HP’s 3D printing technology is shaping our future.

SmileDirectClub is set to make teeth straightening a lot more affordable. What are some of the other benefits of 3D printing to its business model?

Sustainability is built into the manufacturing model from the beginning. SmileDirectClub take excess 3D material and already processed plastic mouth molds and HP recycles them. They are turned into pellets for traditional injection molding, leading to more sustainable production. With this process, leftover raw material isn’t scrapped, it can be saved for the next print job. I can even take a used part and grind it up and use that powder to create another product. That adds to the circular economy, whereby companies design products intending to recycle and reuse them when they reach the end of their lifecycle. We’ve seen it with printer cartridges and even printer parts, so it's something that we think is going to scale across lots of industries.

How does 3D manufacturing stack up to traditional methods for sustainability?

The impact that digital manufacturing has on reducing our carbon footprint is immense. On-demand printing means you’re only manufacturing what you require, so that there’s less overhead and no need to maintain massive warehouses full of inventory. Instead of shipping raw materials and printed parts across the world at considerable cost to the environment, you’re only shipping digital files to the nearest print bureau. Improving the functionality of products makes them more effective and cost less in the long run.

For example, the automotive industry is working very hard to make car batteries more powerful to extend the distance a car can travel. We can help by printing casing for the battery that has fluid funnels to cool the battery and increase its productivity. That means the battery is more efficient and, in the aggregate, all those batteries have a great impact on sustainability. We can even reduce the overall mass of the car by cutting the weight of every single part, improving the car’s range.


SmileDirectClub manufactures in Antioch, Tennessee, where it has deployed 49 HP Jet Fusion 3D printers.

We’ve been hearing a lot about the fourth industrial revolution. Can you explain what it is?

The fourth industrial revolution turns manufacturing from an analog process to a digital process. I think about bits and bytes arriving at the factory rather than raw material. And I think of a 3D printer taking on the manufacturing work. With this kind of technology, you can manufacture closer to the customer on demand, with highly customized products. This means you can offer a significant value to consumers. At a basic level, you’re offering big reduction in capital expenditure. And your lead times for manufacturing are very short. These things are a very big part of the value creation stemming from digital manufacturing.

Which industries are moving the fastest towards these changes?

No industry is excluded when it comes to digital manufacturing and 3D printing.

The automotive industry is actively embracing this technology and is trying to speed up. It has a lot to do with the long lead times on development, and digital manufacturing can reduce those planning times. Another factor is the move away from the internal combustion engine to electric vehicles. And we are working with companies in the sports industry that literally want to customize everything from shoes to tennis rackets.

It’s really all about thinking through the elements of the digital manufacturing process that can have a positive impact on your customer’s value proposition, and if you do that you will find something that is compelling for any industry.

“On-demand printing means you’re only manufacturing what you require, so that there’s less overhead and no need to maintain massive warehouses full of inventory.”

A flexible, elastic cube that was 3D printed with a new thermoplastic polyurethane material from partner BASF.


A flexible, elastic cube that was 3D printed with a new thermoplastic polyurethane material from partner BASF.

Can you share a real-world example? How is 3D printing changing the way they do business?

We generally work with two types of companies: those that are already established businesses, but want to make a change, and those companies that are using our technology to create new businesses.

For established businesses, very often we are brought in to redesign an existing application. We did this recently for a drill extraction shoe used in the manufacture of printing parts. This part usually costs $442 to make, but we were able to redesign it and create a new part we can print that reduced the total cost by 95 percent and weight by 93 percent.

And within HP, we are looking at ways to make our own manufacturing more productive. We are a $50 billion-plus company shipping 100 million unique parts and products every year to 170 countries, and there’s a strategic effort inside the company to literally go across the entirety of our lines of business and identify the opportunities where we can not only make a part lighter or cheaper, but also redesign parts so that they perform better for our customers. In doing so, we can remove labor and material costs so that we can be more sustainable. It's a really great example how a large global enterprise is transforming its own product lifecycle using not just 3D printing, but also the 3D production process itself, and then optimizing its supply chain as well.

You’ve lived on several different continents and held numerous roles covering all aspects of business. How have those experiences shaped your perspective for this global shift in manufacturing?

I lived for many years in Asia, and I see countries there really embracing this approach to manufacturing, which is great because it will require those countries to invest in education to create jobs. And it was great this year to see that things are coming together at the World Economic Forum. The future of production was one of the key work streams there. Having been at the event for two years in a row, even within the last 12 months you can see how this issue is picking up speed.  Literally every CEO or government leader I met with is looking at how to leverage 3D printing and digital manufacturing technologies to transform their business or to grow their economy.