Introduced locally early this year, the HP Jet Fusion 500 and 300 series brought 3D colour printing to an affordable price point, said HP APJ vice-president for 3D printing and digital manufacturing, Rob Mesaros, putting the technology within reach of SMBs, makers, educational institutions and so on.
"Affordable" is relative, of course: the 500 series starts at $200,000, but that was a a significant reduction compared with the earlier 4200 model that had a starting price of $500,000.
The local response was been "tremendous", Mesaros said.
The ability to produce "usable parts... in colour" is significant, but there's more to it than cosmetic issues and (in some cases) avoiding the need for a separate painting step.
HP APJ 3D printing and manufacturing product manager Mitchell Beness pointed out that it meant labels, bar codes and QR codes could be included in an item's CAD file so the result could be a completely finished part.
Furthermore, 3D printing can allow parts to be redesigned for more economical production and better performance. Mesaros gave the example of a particular part that had previously been manufactured in nine pieces at a cost of $450. The 3D printed replacement was one piece, significantly lighter, and cost just $50.
HP eats its own dogfood: 140 of the 5200's parts are printed using this technology, said to be one of the highest proportions of any product in the world.
Examples of Jet Fusion printed items include custom orthotics (which can be produced more quickly than the traditional approach of milling a block of material), tooth aligners, and even automotive components (eg, by BMW, Volkswagen and Jaguar Land Rover).
"We're seeing it [3D printing] reignite manufacturing," Mesaros said. "It's a real opportunity for Australia," although changes to government policy and educational practice are needed for the technology to take off here, he added.
To this end, HP is working with RMIT, Swinburne and UTS to help designers understand that they need to work with 3D printing in mind.
The company is also running additive manufacturing workshops around the world to help all industries realise that 3D printing calls for a different approach to design.
Described simply, the Jet Fusion system works by depositing a thin layer of powder, spraying on a pattern corresponding to the current slice of the design with fusing and (where needed) colouring agents, and then exposing the surface to an energy source to trigger the fusing process.
The unfused powder is reused in the next job.
HP's approach means colour can be applied at any depth. If the colour is merely cosmetic, it could be applied just to the outer surface. Or it can be used to indicate how much a part has worn down in use: if replacement is needed once 3mm has been worn from a rubbing surface, the outer 3mm could be coloured. Once the natural colour of the material is visible, it is time for replacement.
HP claims the Jet Fusion process is much faster than production using extrusion or laser sintering techniques.
The currently supported materials are the PA 11 and PA 12 varieties of nylon, and TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane), but "we're bringing more and more materials onboard" in conjunction with BASF and other companies, said Mesaros.
And the company expects to start shipping 3D printers using its Metal Jet technology (initially for the production of stainless steel parts) in 2020.