“We will break this glass ceiling that 3D printing has right now.” – HP’s Ramon Pastor on the launch of Metal Jet

It was a cold, grey Monday morning when a sleek black cloth was pulled away to unveil the results of four years’ hard work.

As the cloth hit the floor, the presenters stepped out of the way and there was an audible cheer as HP’s metal 3D printing system was unveiled.

In September 2018, the last time IMTS was held, HP announced its move into metals with Metal Jet binder jetting technology. But it wasn’t your typical trade show launch. Rather than introduce a machine that was immediately commercially available, the company rolled out the technology via a service offering in partnership with GKN Powder Metallurgy and Parmatech. Through this service, HP would soft launch Metal Jet, providing up to 20 customers with access to the technology for application development and harnessing the learnings to build out the S100 platform it commercialised last week.

Per HP’s Global Head and General Manager of 3D Metals Ramon Pastor, it has been a success. The company has introduced its flagship Metal Jet machine – after years of GKN and Parmatech printing parts on a ‘hacked’ Multi Jet Fusion system – and has already seen four applications enter production at significant volumes.

“There are four applications right now that are at scale with the Alphas, which by the way, I’m pleasantly surprised,” Pastor told TCT at IMTS. “It was not the intent, when we launched the minimum viable product, to do production. It was to do application development. For me, it’s a success story – huge.”

Now having launched the S100, HP is anticipating a steady increase in the number of Metal Jet applications it has at scale. Pastor noted that it will take a process of ‘months and months’ to identify applications, assess the economics, carry out process development and then move forward. But he and HP are confident that, gradually, the technology will have a sizeable impact.

“It’s not that this will be a ramp [with a steep ascent],” Pastor said. “And by the way, some of the 3D printing technologies, you have this step change [but] with a ceiling. Our approach is different. It actually will take time, but we will break this glass ceiling that 3D printing has right now.”

Metal Jet works by laying down a uniform, thin layer of metal powder across the build area before HP printheads jet binding agent at precise locations to define the geometry of parts. The liquid components of the binding agent then evaporate, with the process repeating until the build is complete. Once the build is complete, the powder bed is heated to complete the evaporation of liquid components of the binding agent and to cure the polymers to achieve high-strength green parts. Once cooled, the parts are removed from the powder bed via the depowdering process, with the green parts then moved into a furnace for sintering. When the sintering is concluded, the parts can undergo post-processing to meet dimensional and surface finish requirements.

The Metal Jet process leans on several facets of HP’s wider product portfolios, including printheads from its Thermal Inkjet business and chemistries from its Latex business. HP has adapted the internal architecture to HP’s Metal Jet printheads to improve the robustness for metal powder particle ingestion. The Latex-based binder, meanwhile, is a long-polymer that is said to bind metal particles in a ‘much stronger way’ to yield stronger green parts, eliminate the need for de-binding, and allow HP to tackle metal components up to one kilogramme.

All in, the HP S100 set-up features four core systems. The metal 3D printer is flanked by a Powder Management Station for the mixing, sieving, and loading of powder to the build unit; a Curing Station which features controllable vacuum flow and uniform head distribution; and a Powder Removal Station for the automated removal and recovery of loose powder.

HP Metal Jet S100 printer performance

Effective building volume | 430 x 309 x 200 mm

Building speed | 1990 cc/hr8

Layer thickness | 35 – 140 µm

Job processing resolution (x,y) | 1200 dpi

Printer resolution (x,y) | 1200 dpi

Printhead system | 2 print bars/ 6 HP Thermal Inkjet printheads (63,360 nozzles)/ Automatic nozzle health detector and nozzle replacement

Print redundancy | 4-times nozzle redundancy at 1200 dpi resolution3

Users can deploy various configurations of these systems depending on their requirements. Those running Metal Jet for a few hours a week in a tech centre, for example, need not include a Curing Station in their configuration, since curing can be done in the Metal Jet printer. If users wish to scale to mass volumes, though, it is likely more build units, and potentially more Curing Stations and powder modules will be required too. Hence, HP is not making public the price point of the Metal Jet solution, as costs will differ from customer to customer. The S100 is also set to be the only Metal Jet machine developed, with all future updates being backwards compatible so as not to make the current system obsolete.

The modularity of HP’s Metal Jet solution has been designed to enable process and application development, as well as scaling parts to production, all on the same technology. HP also counts its ability to produce parts in near net shape in one step – as opposed to three or four – as one of the technology’s big pulls. Altogether, HP says the Metal Jet system brings benefits across automation, cost, labour, and, though intangible, flexibility. Pastor told TCT the company has ‘maniacally’ been working to develop a metal additive technology that is ‘production worthy’, with a focus placed on operational efficiency, yield, uptime and qualifying specs to five sigma.

“This is why we have only introduced two materials,” Pastor explained. “Because we wanted these materials to be super, super, super qualified to go directly to production. We have demonstrated many other materials that are compatible, that are viable, but this is the other stage that if a customer comes, if an application comes, then we will qualify them.”

Currently, HP has stainless steels 316L and 174-PH qualified on the Metal Jet, while tool steel, Inconel, copper, and brass powders were raised as future possibilities and reactive materials like titanium and aluminium ruled out. HP has also suggested that manufacturers looking to produce parts bigger than one kilo are better served using other methods, as are those looking to manufacture one-off components.

Where the technology has made sense, though, is in the additive manufacture of air filter/690V circuit breakers for Schneider Electric. The electrical equipment company has sought to adopt Metal Jet technology in its bid to achieve safety, reliability, and sustainability in the products it provides. Via GKN Powder Metallurgy’s Metal Jet capacity, the company has been able to additively manufacture metal circuit breaker filters in a new shape that reduces gas, pressure, and heat impact in a more limited space. The lattice element of the design is considered almost impossible to achieve with conventional manufacturing and pretty difficult with other 3D printing technologies too.

“We had a problem, and they had a solution for our problem,” Michael Lofty, SVP of Power Products & Systems, North America, Schneider Electric, said at IMTS. “But then, the solution needed to be adapted to our needs. We’ve worked together a lot on the design, the shape and geometry, but also how to improve – at that time – the Alpha type of printer to make it adapted to print in such a complex shape.”

Lofty says that the resulting part releases gas ‘in a very disruptive way’ which reduces the fatality in the event of an explosion. “This is something not available in today’s market, there is no place that I can go to buy such a thing.”

It is a critical safety element, patented by Schneider, and is one of the four Metal Jet applications already being manufactured at scale. HP has also found success with Cobra Golf on its KING Supersport-35 putter developed with Parmatech, while there are also applications in mobility and healthcare reaching mass production volumes. Akin to its Multi Jet Fusion systems, and as part of the ongoing HP on HP programme, a couple of S100 components have also been additively manufactured with Metal Jet – so too at least one component in the company’s PC business.

HP on HP is an initiative driven by HP’s supply chain team in order for the company to ‘get all of the advantages’ of its additive manufacturing technologies that it is ‘preaching to the world.’ Through this internal programme, Multi Jet Fusion has had quite an impact, helping to consolidate several assembled parts into one piece and saving weight by replacing metal components with plastic ones. Externally, Multi Jet Fusion has also now reached a landmark of around 150 million printed parts – up from the 100 million it reached last year – and attracted the custom of the likes of SmileDirectClub, Fast Radius and Forecast 3D.

HP, then, has already had success in enabling volumes of printed parts, installing fleets of machines with single customers, and addressing manufacturing problems. But in metals, it sees even more opportunity.

“The pain points that the metal industry has are much, much bigger than the plastic,” Pastor said. “[In] plastics, we are competing with the most efficient technology, which is injection moulding. And only when injection moulding can’t do things, 3D can do this. Metal, the technologies, with the exception of MIM (Metal Injection Moulding), they’ve been around for the last 500 years, so they’re not very sophisticated. They’re not very automated. You go to a MIM house or a casting factory, it’s based on the knowledge of the workers. It’s very unique, it’s super labour intensive, it’s difficult to scale up and to scale down, so flexibility is not there. Plus, to do final metal parts, you usually need three or four different steps. The pain points in the industry were huge, so we thought that was a great opportunity for 3D to go and disrupt.”

HP also decided IMTS, where hundreds of exhibitors and tens of thousands of visitors from the manufacturing space congregated, was the place to formally introduce the S100 solution. For several years HP has been talking about its aim to disrupt the manufacturing market, many thousand times larger than the 3D printing industry, and likewise, much has been made of binder jet technology’s potential to be the AM technology that facilitates parts production in mass volumes.

As, after four years, HP finally made its Metal Jet technology commercially available, Pastor is confident the company is on a path to significant disruption.

“This is not a market share game; this is to create a market that doesn’t exist. We want to disrupt the mainstream metal manufacturing instead of getting share from somebody else in 3D printing,” Pastor finished. “I think that the direction of S100 is a point of inflection. I cannot talk for the rest of the companies doing binder jet, but the fact that we have two fully qualified materials, and we have five sigma confidence, in all aspects, for me, it’s a big change.”

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