HP’s new Metal Jet chief on the 3D-printing technology about to transform mass production

With the launch of Metal Jet, HP is taking 3D printing from prototyping to the factory floor of the automotive, heavy industrial and medical industries.

By Roland Jones — September 10, 2018

From the beginning, metals 3D printing has been a promising new technology with a lot of potential but few practical applications due to high costs and limited technology. It was an innovative tool for creating prototype parts and small-run production, but was too expensive and cumbersome for large-scale mass production.

But while full 3D production is still in its early stages, the technology — also called additive manufacturing — is accelerating its digital transformation of the $12 trillion global manufacturing market and changing the way the world designs and produces nearly everything.

Today, HP unveiled the HP Metal Jet platform, a high-volume 3D production technology that will reinvent how industrial manufacturers mass-produce the metal parts that drive major global industries like automotive, medical and industrial. HP also announced the new Metal Jet Production Service, which allows customers to submit their designs for 3D-printed metal parts starting today, accelerating their path to manufacturing’s fully digital future.

In fact, it won’t be long before metal 3D printing is powering the digital factories of the future, says Tim Weber, a 25-year HP veteran and newly appointed head of HP’s just-launched Metal Jet business. Weber predicts that 3D metals will be the next big leap in the acceleration of a Fourth Industrial Revolution that’s being driven by disruptive new technologies like artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, the Internet of Things and 3D printing.

We sat down with Tim to discuss the breakthrough technology and the implications of HP’s latest and potentially biggest industry reinvention to date. 

Tim Weber holding a 3D Metal Jet printed part.

Chris Becerra

Tim Weber holding a 3D Metal Jet printed part.

Congratulations on your new role leading HP’s Metal Jet business, Tim. Can you tell us a little about your path here?

In my 25 years at HP, I’ve been fortunate help lead the development of numerous new printing technologies with implications that go well beyond the printing market to much larger arenas, like the $12 trillion global manufacturing industry. That experience has given me a great understanding of how manufacturing works on a nuts-and-bolts level:  What it takes to make millions of things that are exactly the same, at the right cost and with the right yield, over and over again. My team and I have taken that knowledge, along with HP’s expertise in both 2D printing and 3D plastics, to create a new tool for large manufacturers. It combines 3D printing technology with the material that is the lifeblood of their businesses: Metal.

How does HP’s Metal Jet technology differ from previous 3D printing processes?

Essentially, we are building on our plastics experience to enter the very large metals manufacturing market. With HP’s foundational 3D printing technology, Multi Jet Fusion, you take a bed of powdered plastic and use small jets to apply a fusing agent that absorbs heat and melts the plastic. In metals, we are using the same approach, but instead of a fusing agent, we apply a different material called a binding agent to the powdered layers of the metal, which helps to increase productivity up to 50 times more than other similar processes. You need that level of productivity, one that’s capable of creating consistently high-quality functional metal parts that meet or exceed industry standard, to make a dent (sorry) in the huge metals-driven markets like automotive, medical and industrial. 

What is the main economic advantage for manufacturers?

We’re giving manufacturers the ability to produce high-quality metal parts faster and cheaper, and with fewer steps. If you look at how metal parts are made today, you typically create physical molds for your desired part and use those to manufacture them. If the part isn’t quite right, you have to create new molds and do the process over, so it can take six months and lots of added expense to make something that’s up to standards. With Metal Jet you can literally create 20 different variations of a part all at once — the sky’s the limit — and compare them all to find the best one. A week later, you’re good to go using that part for production. Once you have those economics in place you can save huge amounts of time and investment when you’re manufacturing units in the millions. 

The Metal Jet Production Service allows customers to submit designs for 3D-printed metal parts, accelerating their path to manufacturing’s fully-digital future. 

Can you describe a scenario where this technology could be applied?

How about industrial transportation? Think of a big supertanker going back and forth huge distances between two countries. If for some reason that tanker needs a new part, today the part would probably be delivered by air at incredible expense compared to the likely smaller expense of the part itself. But if you had the ability to print it locally on the ship and install it right there to get it moving again, you’d be able to eliminate that additional transportation cost. Now add that up with dozens of ships traveling thousands of miles. The fact is, it’s a lot cheaper to email a digital file of a part’s design to a computer on the ship and print it right there than it is to transport steel parts around the world by air. And from an inventory standpoint, instead of having to maintain warehouses full of every part you made over the past 50 years at multiple locations, you just print what you need, when you need it and where you need it. 

3D Metal Jet printed Volkswagen gearshift knob.

3D Metal Jet printed Volkswagen gearshift knob.

Which industries are poised to take advantage of this technology?

A good example is the automotive industry. Carmakers are seeing a shift away from the internal combustion engine toward electric vehicles (EVs), and so 3D printing represents a huge opportunity. As they create new production lines for EVs, automakers will startto re-evaluate the way they design and manufacture cars from top to bottom and the benefits of using new technologies. With 3D printing you can get products to market a lot quicker, you can mass-customize parts and cars, and you can make cars more lightweight and fuel efficient with smarter designs like using web-like lattice structures instead of solid metal. That’s the case with Volkswagen, which is integrating Metal Jet into their product development timeline over the next few years to make everything from customized key rings to latticed metal gearshift knobs, and is expected to go even further with the mass production of EVs. We’ll be able to produce Metal Jet parts at that sort of massive scale with our manufacturing partner, GKN, who is the world’s largest producer of metal parts for the auto industry — more than 13 million each day.

The medical field is also ideal for 3D printing, because every body is unique, and production volumes for items such as prosthetic devices are pretty low. Often you only need a couple thousand items, which is small by manufacturing standards. With 3D printing, not only can a medical device manufacturer make something that’s individual for each one of us, but because of the economics, it’s also cheaper for the manufacturer to use our process to build that part. 

“You can create 20 different variations of a part all at once ... and compare them to find the best one. A week later, you’re good to go using that part for production.”

Tim Weber, Global Head of 3D Metals, 3D Printing Business, HP Inc.

What does all this mean for HP’s future? 

There’s a big opportunity here for HP. There are billions of dollars worth of parts being manufactured across multiple industries, and many of them are small, complex parts that are fairly expensive to create with traditional methods.

More broadly, we are building our 3D plastic and metal technologies on top of our 2D printing heritage, and it’s a sustainable advantage for HP and an important differentiator for our business. I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to help create a breakthrough technology, one that leverages our long engineering legacy to drive a new industrial revolution that changes the way the world makes things, and engages with people on a personal level, forever.


Learn more about the world’s most advanced metals 3D printing technology for mass production.