How HP could reshape itself and the 3D printing market

In the basement of HP’s Palo Alto research lab, there’s a five-foot-tall machine that will soon evolve into the company’s first real product for the 3D printing market. Given its legacy as an electronics and 2D printing pioneer, this might be the most important machine HP has pursued in decades.

“We are excited about 3D printing,” CEO Meg Whitman said in October while announcing the company’s plans to release a product by mid-2014. “We want to lead this business. HP Labs is looking at it.”

Meg Whitman

HP CEO Meg Whitman

It’s more than a potential moneymaker for HP. For the first time in years, this is the ailing tech giant’s chance to be on the cutting edge of something. And it very well might pull it off, giving the 3D printing industry a boost in the process.

HP loses its mojo

It all started in a garage in 1939 in Palo Alto, where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard became members of the founding generation of Silicon Valley. Early on, the company found success building audio oscillators. Then it built electronic test equipment, a “desktop calculator” that can actually be labeled as the first-ever personal computer and many other ventures. Finally, in the 1980s, it delved into the markets many of us know HP for best: inkjet and laser printing. For many years, sales of printers and printer supplies paid the company’s bills.

Inside an early "instrument demonstration bus." Photo courtesy of HP.

Inside an early “instrument demonstration bus.” Photo courtesy of HP.

Founded by electrical engineers, HP was not a sexy company. But for a long time it was well run and, by the 1970s, globally known.

Then, in 1999, HP brought in Carly Fiorina as CEO. She oversaw a shaky merger with Compaq. The tech bubble burst. HP was shedding jobs and moving further from its engineering roots. Fiorina was replaced in 2005 by Mark Hurd, who is now the co-president of Oracle. While Hurd cut costs and pushed PC and laptop sales to the highest in the industry, he did so at the expense of his staff. Talent left. Hurd resigned in 2010 in the midst of a sexual harassment scandal. His replacement, Léo Apotheker, lasted a year.

Since then, the company’s past has haunted its present. As my colleague Barb Darrow recently put it:

As most tech analysts have shown, HP is trying to remake itself as a cloud and cloud service provider. The problem is while it’s doing that, it still relies on revenue from PCs and servers, two sectors under intense pressure. HP has also repeatedly stumbled in mobile, buying Palm Computing in 2010 for $1.2 billion, for example, then discarding Palm’s technology. Now, HP is reportedly thinking about entering the “phablet” market.

Whitman, who is responsible for much of eBay’s success and who joined HP as CEO in 2011, has said the company is now tackling a longterm turnaround. Embedded in that is an increased focus on something HP was once a leader in: research and development.

Is HP ready for this?

This is not the first brush with 3D printing for HP. Beginning in 2010, it distributed a line of HP-branded printers made by Stratasys in Europe. It also has a faint connection to the Afinia brand of printers, as it has partnered with their parent company Microboards Technology for a decade now. It holds at least three related patents; two dealing with modeling and one with the actual print process.

It also is, well, a printer company. It’s good at hanging a nozzle on a gantry system and putting it in a box. Its printers work most of the time. It has decades more experience building machines than any company currently competing in the 3D printer space.

Close up of a gMax 3D printer. Photo by Signe Brewster

Close up of a gMax 3D printer. Photo by Signe Brewster

So HP has some unique expertise to build a very decent printer. But it also gets the business model. It’s been selling all of us overpriced ink and toner for decades now, while basically giving its printers away. You can do the same thing with a 3D printer by making it only compatible with a certain type of spool or filament. HP told Wired that it has already developed a special polymer that its 3D printer prototype uses.

If you want to use an HP printer, you likely will have to buy and use that polymer. That will allow HP to drop the price of its printers. The industry will hate it, but stockholders will love it. And people will buy the printer if it’s easy to use.

Gordon LaPlante, creator of the gMax, a large, RepRap inspired printer based in Brooklyn, said that despite HP’s experience, there may be some unexpected obstacles.

“All and all, 3D printing is still a somewhat complex thing to tackle and the users must be willing to put up with a level of complexity that I feel will really challenge HP. I suppose in the early days of 2D printing, dot matrix and such, the same level of complexity was also present and the evolution has resulted in very simple-to-use printers,” LaPlante said. “If they can overcome the issues over the next 5 years they may be a powerhouse in the industry. My opinion is that they will not.”

If HP does succeed, it could pay off big. A September Gartner report (subscription required) estimated that the personal 3D printing market will grow to be worth $5.7 billion by 2017, up from $288 million in 2012.

HP will be good for the 3D printing industry

Until 2005, the only 3D printers were large, professional machines that tended to cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. There are three major types of 3D printing, and each was created and patented independently in the 1980s. Today, they have grown into Stratasys and 3D Systems: the two leading 3D printer makers in the U.S.

For 20 years, 3D printing was almost unknown to the public. Universities, labs and the manufacturing industry relied on printers for prototypes and custom parts. There was no personal 3D printer for the home.

Selective laser sintering co-creators Carl Deckard and Joe Beaman with an early 3D printer. Photo courtesy of UT-Austin.

Selective laser sintering co-inventors Carl Deckard and Joe Beaman with an early 3D printer. Photo courtesy of UT-Austin.

Then, the RepRap project was born in 2005. Hobbyists in pursuit of a machine that could replicate itself built the very first desktop 3D printer, a print head on a scaffold of metal rods perched over a printing platform. RepRap’s design has been open-source from the start, and, as a result, has appeared in many forms in printers later sold by small startups. MakerBot, whose founders learned 3D printing from working with RepRaps, followed the project’s lead and made its first two printers open source. Design elements from those two printers have since appeared many, many times in other company’s products.

A RepRap 3D printer. Photo by Signe Brewster

A RepRap 3D printer. Photo by Signe Brewster

Together, RepRap and MakerBot led to a boom in personal 3D printing, plus overall interest in the industry. Companies had easy access to designs to build their own printers and proof that people were willing to spend up to several thousand dollars for a relatively easy-to-use machine. Crowdfunding sites have erupted with new printer releases.

But these vital pioneering products have all come from small startups or existing players like Stratasys and 3D Systems. Xerox has partnered with 3D Systems for 15 years, but it never made the leap to release its own printer. The big guys have all waited to jump in. HP will be the first.

“With larger players such as HP entering the idea-to-object market, 2014 may well be the year we see the rest of the industry move from peak hype to a more enlightened focus on functionality and usability,” San Francisco-based Type A Machines CEO Espen Sivertsen said. “Anything that pushes the envelope in hardware or software is a good thing. HP’s printing and content lab has some really smart folks, and we look forward to seeing what their contribution will be and how they might benefit our users.”

Type A Machines' offices in TechShop in San Francisco. Photo by Signe Brewster

Type A Machines’ offices in TechShop in San Francisco. Photo by Signe Brewster

Others I talked to in the industry echoed Sivertsen: HP’s interest in this market is a good thing. For 3D printing to continue moving forward, there need to be new minds thinking about it in new ways. Stratasys spokesperson Bruce Bradshaw said HP will be able to lend the industry its “deep pockets,” which can go toward R&D. He also noted that without MakerBot (which is owned by Stratasys), the industry might still be invisible. The more people, especially tech giants, that enter, the more visible it will become.

“It will help everybody,” Bradshaw said.

LaPlante said he is sure there is another wave of innovation on the way, all of which will be patent protected. And patents will bring lawsuits that could ensnare small startups as they grow (wait, that’s already happening), but also pit the big guys against each other. The era of open source 3D printing is over.

“Starting the way it did means many dedicated people have invested countless hours into a technology they feel really passionate about and the result was an overwhelming explosion of innovation to the community,” LaPlante said. “In the end I am happy for the large companies who are embracing the technology and who will advance it, … and one can hope it follows the PC company trend where small computer startups competed with large conglomerates with relative success.”