HP and the Future of 3D Printing

By November 3, 2013 March 17th, 2018 3D Printing, Mergers & Acquisitions

HP to Enter 3D Printing in 2014

On October 23, HP CEO Meg Whitman told the Canalys Channels Forum in Bangkok that HP plans to enter the 3D Printer market in the middle of 2014. HP plans to pursue ways to make 3D printing faster and cheaper, and while Whitman acknowledges that “3D printing is in its infancy”, she also sees great market opportunity for HP and is leading HP to ask “how do we commercialize to print faster, at lower price points? to enable service providers?”

Whitman believes, and many analysts agree, that 3-D printing is a natural extension of HP’s traditional 2D printing business. The logic is that as a longstanding market leader of 2D printers, printer inks and paper, HP can use its existing expertise, R&D resources and supply and distribution chains to innovate in 3D printing.

There is some merit to the analogy, as long as we keep it within the scope of where the concentration of 3D printing is today and will be in the near future: fabricating trinkets, fashion accessories, and small volume of specialized parts consumed primarily by small specialty manufacturers and hobbyists. This “makers” market is small, and Whitman acknowledges in her remarks that she did not expect 3D printing to become a big business quickly.

The big opportunity, of course, is in serving the “builders” economy – the larger manufacturing companies that could use 3D printing for prototyping and testing and to replace some traditional manufacturing technologies by additive manufacturing. But printing paper isn’t exactly as manufacturing industrial parts. I discussed the key needs for industrializing 3D printing before. Here is a short recap:

  • Printed parts should be serialized and traced in the supply chain for safety and quality tracking.
  • Methods for final inspection and quality check are needed, as spare parts are printed and enter into the supply chain (“as maintained” configuration) at the point of service.
  • Traceability in 3D printing is not only of printed parts. It should also include the serial number of the printer used in the process so that its maintenance and calibration history can be tracked, the batch number of materials used to print each part, and possibly who was the operator that printed, quality-checked and approved the part.

This will be a significant departure for HP from its consumer and office product business, where products and consumables are sold through consumer channels.

Both Allan Behrens and Steve Faktor of IdeaFaktory, I cannot tell who was first, suggested that an acquisition of an established 3D printing company like Startasys or 3D Systems might be a good way for HP to get into the world of industrial 3D printing (I noticed that Stratasys started using the term “professional 3D printing.” Is this an attempt to keep some distance from the “makers” and appeal more to “builders”?)

HP may not have appetite for acquisitions these days, given its overall market position and the watchful eye of Wall Street (the company made only one acquisition (Hiflex Software) since the highly controversial acquisition of Autonomy in 2011). Moreover, the financial results of both Startasys and 3D Systems are pretty good (in the consumers market, mind you), and, coupled with the hype surrounding 3D printing, their market cap continues to rise. This may not be the right move for HP at this time. And, if HP were to try such a move, the integration of these or similar product companies into HP may prove to be a significant hurdle.

My conclusion? First, the 3D printing industry: the technology and general business processes, especially supply chain, are not ready to challenge the manufacturing industry.

As for HP, it should definitely explore opportunities in industrial 3D printing, including the associated professional and managed services. As the manufacturing industry continues to explore 3D printing, HP could take an active part in the conversation, focusing on maturing and “industrializing” the manufacturing technology and process. This is a long term investment and, while important, is not going to have significant impact on HP’s bottom line in the near term.