Grenoble’s Y.Spot: Collaborating on the future of 3D printing

In the heart of the French Alps, HP, CEA, and other companies join forces to solve complex problems at an innovative 3D printing technology hub.

By Jill Starley-Grainger — July 26, 2023

The French city of Grenoble, nearly 400 miles south of Paris, lies in the middle of a Y-shaped alpine valley where two rivers meet, wending their way through a trio of limestone massifs — Chartreuse, Vercors, Belledonne. Wherever you are in this compact city, known as the capital of the Alps, you have 360-degree views of the peaks where skiers flock to snow-covered slopes in winter and golden eagles nest in summer. For all its natural beauty, Grenoble has also been known as a technological center since the 18th century, when local artist and inventor Jacques de Vaucanson developed a raft of new inventions that helped bring about the Industrial Revolution. But instead of Vaucanson’s metal lathes, automatic looms, and automatons (early robots), today it’s home to businesses, universities, and industries working on advanced technologies key to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 


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This rich technological heritage and expertise led HP to open a Grenoble office over 50 years ago, establishing a strong base for its operations in Europe. Now more than 500 HP employees from 25 countries work in Grenoble in customer support, sales, and supply chain operations. Since 2018, the company has also been the exclusive 3D printing partner for the Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), a French government agency and research organization.

“HP has been a leading industrial player in the Grenoble region since 1971, and in particular for the scientific and technological research community, including CEA,” says Julie Galland, director of technological research at CEA, which has a number of R&D facilities.

Richard Laucournet on the Y.Spot terrace.

Francesco Bernasconi

Richard Laucournet on the Y.Spot terrace.

A few years ago CEA opened an innovation center called Y.Spot, with a dedicated 3D printing hub from HP. In 2022, HP teams in Grenoble moved to the new building, designed by architects Agence Chabanne and with multi-level, modular interiors by Cynthia Ayral. Here, CEA and HP work together to develop 3D printing solutions for a variety of industrial uses, and 12 member corporations, including Arkema, BASF, ERPRO, HP, L’Oréal, Renault, Sculpeo, and Siemens, collaborate to develop 3D-printed products and innovations. 

The hub of ideas

Inside, Y.Spot has a large entry area and glimpses of open-plan offices, meeting rooms, and dedicated studio spaces for projects. Partners and guests can sit on the landing between the two floors, play mini table tennis, and help themselves to coffee. On the upper floor, display cases at the top of the stairs show some of the micro- and nano-electronics projects CEA has been working on, such as satellites and renewable energy cells. 

A few rooms have large equipment and HP Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) printers that provide polymer-based 3D printing, which uses a type of plastic filament, while HP Metal Jet printers are housed nearby. 

“We believe 3D printing is very relevant for industry,” says Richard Laucournet, head of the Department of New Materials Technologies at CEA’s base in Grenoble. “Working with HP was a real opportunity to collaborate with a big player in 3D printing. The techniques developed by HP are different from its competitors’, so we are investing in them, and working on polymer and metal printing to promote 3D printing technologies and demonstrate their relevance.” 

Members come to Y.Spot — nicknamed “the hub” — to collaborate on cross-industry projects that could lead to major changes in their own areas of business, including the automotive, cosmetics, prosthetics, product ID equipment, railways, and energy management industries. These trials are highly confidential and afford them the ability to experiment, share ideas, and devise solutions for incubating, prototyping, and testing in a safe and supportive environment, away from the day-to-day grind of the home company. 

“Working with HP was a real opportunity to collaborate with a big player in 3D printing.”

— Richard Laucournet, head of the department of new materials technologies at CEA

Cooperation brings new ideas and products

HP and CEA have designers, engineers, technicians, and other staff based at the hub permanently, and member companies send their own people or teams on a regular or as-needed basis. The space attracts diverse talent from across STEM disciplines, as this type of cross-domain expertise is needed for complex digital and physical solutions. 

“In the 3D hub, we bring together experts from different industries, such as automotive and cosmetics, and researchers in key areas of science, such as physics, chemistry, and electronics, to drive insights and innovation,” says Agnieszka Thonet, Distinguished Technologist and HP lead at Y.Spot. 

These experts present business problems they hope 3D printing innovations could help solve, and team up with other members to find novel approaches to their own challenges. Computer software is used to test out hypothetical solutions, and some are turned into prototypes, which are subjected to various tests at the hub or are brought back home to a partner’s own facilities to see how they perform. 

By sharing ideas and insights at an early stage, Y.Spot partners discover that, often, the same behind-the-scenes technology and information can be used to produce remarkably different outputs.

Left: A blue component part for a Renault dashboard on display. Right: Designer Milan Exbrayat holding a 3D-printed metal lipstick case prototype made for L'Orèal

Francesco Bernasconi

Left: A component part for a Renault dashboard displayed at Y.Spot. Right: Designer Milan Exbrayat displays a metal lipstick case prototype made for L'Orèal at the Y.Spot innovation center.

Take lipstick and cars — there’s no obvious link between the two, but cosmetics company L’Oréal and automobile manufacturer Renault collaborated on 3D printing research that would benefit them both. They have been working together with HP and the CEA Lab designers to investigate the aesthetic and functional possibilities of 3D-printed lipstick cases and car dashboards. The two companies divide the task of performing the necessary tests to advance the concept to the next stage. 

“For example, our labs might run tests on different types of paints applied to 3D-printed items. The goal is to see how they appear after three years of use,” explains Matthew Forrester, head of materials transformation and recycling for L’Oréal’s Packaging Science Centre. “At the same time, Renault could look at how different paints applied to the items can handle shock resistance.” For L’Oréal, this information can help them create cosmetics packaging that survives different environments. 

The companies then share the results — with each other and other members at the hub — without having to perform the same labor-intensive tests individually, saving time and money, and speeding up the process of going to market. There are environmental benefits, as well. 

“We look at the development of new manufacturing processes to reduce energy and material consumption, which is where 3D printing is very relevant,” says Laucournet.

Innovation in design for new products

Since it opened in 2020, Y.Spot has successfully produced a number of prototypes for its partners, and HP is considering setting up similar innovation hubs in other locations. This is in addition to its various Personalization & 3D Printing Labs around the world, including the 3D Printing and Digital Manufacturing Center of Excellence in Barcelona. 

“At the hub, we try to solve problems that we know exist in a certain space,” says Thonet. “We work hands-on, jointly pushing the technology limits on our partners’ and customers’ challenges, and taking the ideas from incubation to validation, with a focus on their needs.” 

Helping turn the hub’s ideas into reality is Milan Exbrayat, industrial designer for CEA at Y.Spot. “My job is to think of and design objects for our partners,” explains Exbrayat. He works with the engineers, scientists, and technicians, as well as the hub members’ own design teams, to turn concepts into functional prototypes. These go through a series of stages, with Exbrayat designing the first one on his computer, printing it with HP’s 3D MJF printers, tinkering with it to see how it’s working, then adjusting it until he feels it’s ready to be tested further. 

Left: Three employees from different industries sitting in CEA's Y.Spot and collaborating on a 3D printed, customized orthopedic device. Right: A close-up of the textured, 3D printed femoral socket.

Francesco Bernasconi

Left: Milan Exbrayat, Jules Revais and Agnieszka Thonet collaborate at CEA's Y.Spot. Right: This customized femoral socket for improved wearer comfort was made for German orthopedic technology company Ottobock with HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing technology.

Ultimately, the concepts that qualify will be made into products that will be used for commercial, industrial, or other real-world purposes, but today much of what is being developed at Y.Spot is experimental or a prototype. For example, samples of L’Oréal 3D-printed lipstick cases were both beautiful and strong, but dust could get into their delicate lattices and compromise the cosmetics. Even if that product doesn’t go to market, those insights could potentially inform future cosmetics packaging. Another partner, German orthopedic technology company Ottobock has been making prostheses and orthotics for more than 100 years. 

The advent of 3D printing has helped them create improvements that significantly increase patient comfort. Ottobock has been working with HP to produce customized transfemoral sockets for amputees, i.e., the interface between a patient’s limb and prosthesis. “The collaboration with HP and CEA helped us to efficiently develop some disruptive ideas, such as the transfemoral sockets, using the full capacities of the HP machines and postprocessing technologies,” explains Jules Revais, R&D manager at Ottobock France.

For amputees, any improvement in the personalization and comfort of their orthotics can make a major difference to their lives. With 3D lattices and other 3D-printed components from HP, Ottobock developed new sockets that offer more strength, flexibility, and comfort than previous devices. 

This is just one of dozens of creative solutions that the hub’s collaborations have led to, explains CEA’s Galland. 

“Together with HP, we have built a full ecosystem to look at the many possible applications of 3D printing technology, and are developing more than 40 different projects that will directly create value for customers,” she says. 


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