Hewlett-Packard (HP) recently released a white paper detailing its planned 3D printer. HP’s “Multi Jet Fusion” system claims a tenfold increase in build speed, improved part quality with controllable properties like color, elasticity and strength, and better “economics” than current offerings. The printer functions by inkjet printing binder into a bed of powdered thermoplastic, though the company claimed this technology could ultimately print metals and ceramics. HP’s accompanying press release said the printers would be available in 2016.
Along with its decision to split into two companies, this move into the 3D printing space would appear geared at turning around the company’s financial fortunes and reversing a declining culture of innovation. However, while others have focused on offering investment advice or lauding the move as primed to radically change manufacturing, a closer reading of the white paper reveals several holes in HP’s performance claims, in several key areas:
Speed and part precision. HP is not the first to try to improve printer throughput. Technologies like Loughborough University’s High Speed Sintering (HSS) printer have achieved similar tenfold improvement in print speed over selective laser sintering (SLS) printers. However, the tradeoff is part precision, as printed parts require post-processing to achieve the same surface smoothness as SLS parts. HP’s printer will likely also require post-processing to achieve similar results.
Part properties. HP’s white paper contains a laundry list of impressive properties that the new printer will be able to control: surface roughness, friction, opacity, color, and electrical and thermal conductivity. There is a catch, however: Reading the footnotes reveals that these are just possibilities, and not all have been selected for inclusion in the first generation of printers. At this time, HP has only demonstrated parts with multiple colors. Until more information is revealed, it seems that color printing is the only capability that will make it into the 2016 model printers.
Economics. Again, reading the footnotes proves to be critical to understanding HP’s claims. HP compares its offerings to SLS printers like those of 3D Systems (client registration required) or EOS (client registration required), that range in price from $200,000 (polyamide printer) to $1.2 million (polyketone printer). Given that it has chosen SLS as its benchmark, HP’s printers could cost into the low hundreds of thousands of dollars and still be considered “economical.” Meanwhile, companies like Z Corp (now owned by 3D Systems) offer printers cheaper than $40,000, which would make HP’s look far less favorable in comparison.What’s more, HP gives no estimate of material or binder costs, a critical input for total cost of ownership.
Despite these significant questions regarding the value proposition of the Multi Jet Fusion, HP’s entry into the 3D printing space remains significant as it is sure to attract attention and catalyze innovation and investment activity industry-wide. The giant company’s vast network and distribution channels could help accelerate growth of the entire space. Additionally, HP’s core technology is amenable to multi-material printing, which if properly developed could significantly expand the possibilities of printed objects.
HP’s statement that it “is inviting creative collaboration in materials for 3D printing” is on the surface encouraging, as it appears to eschew the closed materials business models employed by today’s leading printer companies that thwart 3D printable material development (see the report “How 3D Printing Adds Up: Emerging Materials, Processes, Applications, and Business Models” — client registration required). However, HP’s “Frequently Asked Questions” accompaniment reveals that “HP aims to lead the market by developing new 3D print materials, using color, biocompatible, ceramic, metal, and other materials” – implying its invitation of creative collaboration is likely just a euphemism for the shortsighted razor/blade business models already employed by the likes of 3D Systems, Stratasys, and EOS that prioritize next quarter’s profits over innovation and long term growth. HP would be well served focusing on refining its hardware technology and demonstrating concrete improvements on price or performance, and leaving material development to material experts, much like electron beam melting (EBM) pioneer Arcam (client registration required) did to accelerate its commercial traction in aerospace and medical production applications. Until then, HP’s claims of revolutionizing the 3D printing space will remain as flimsy as the paper they are printed on.
But it’s not just Blackberry. Like the maker of the ur-smartphone, several other big bearers of the innovation flag have announced “good” news this September that actually feels bad, and the world’s innovation enthusiasts and investors are feeling droopy. What’s weighing us down?
Samsung’s sluggish smart watch. As we noted previously, Samsung’s highly-anticipated “Gear” smart watch came out expensive ($300) and weak (315 mAh battery), with at best 25 hours of battery life, less than a full day with normal use – maybe it keeps bankers’ hours. Geek blogs Mashable and Engadget found it “not as fast as we’d expected” and “noticeably sluggish”, and Forbes said the device “offers little upside” for the company stock. Others opined that the locked, expensive device was unworthy of a leading global devicemaker, when crowdfunded upstarts were already making open, cheaper devices like the Pebble and Omate TrueSmart.
Apple’s boring iPhones. Rather than offering more value for less money, Apple simply degraded its flagship product, poorly. A cheap plastic case is meant to lower costs and appeal to emerging market consumers, but Wall Street thinks it’s still too expensive and hammered the stock 4%. The improvements Apple did offer – new colors and fingerprint-based security – were decorative touches that didn’t significantly improve function or user experience and even caused privacy fretting. Influential technology site CNET groaned that “we live in boring times,” and The Guardian asked if Apple has “given up on innovation”.
Nokia’s final, fatal fail. After a protracted bout of declining market share (from 35% in 2003 to 14% today), revenue, and profit, the 150-year old company sold its mobile phone business to Microsoft (another company struggling to self-reinvent). Ironically, Nokia did invent the first smartphone (Nokia Communicator) but lost the market battle by stubbornly sticking to its lame Symbian OS as a defense against Microsoft’s equally lame Windows Mobile, distracting both companies from the threat of Apple’s iOS and Google-backed Android (which now have about 20% and 70% smartphone market share, respectively).
Hewlett-Packard’s drop from the Dow. The original garage startup, 75-year-old legend HP sat at the pinnacle of hardware innovation as recently as 2010. But after four CEOs and losing some $68 billion in value since then, its stock has fallen so far that it was just dropped from the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The company was so busy selling PCs and printers that it failed to notice that no one was buying them – HP’s growing market share literally blinded it to the fact that competitors exiting, not consumers entering, was driving its success. Arguably, HP’s decline actually began when it sold off its innovation engine, Agilent. Without a culture and pipeline of R&D, a company that had survived massive shifts, like that from desktop calculators to desktop computers – both of which HP invented – has nothing to replace a declining line for the first time ever. Meanwhile, Agilent is doing so well it will soon be able to buy its old parent.
What do these failures have in common? Certainly not a lack of resources; each of the companies has been the top of its field immediately prior to its fall (Apple’s iPhone launch was a commercial recordbreaker, and Samsung’s profit is up too, even as mobile revenue shrinks). Not a lack of technology – each has been early to market with the next-generation technology. It’s a lack of foresight, desire, curiosity, courage, passion, mojo… Leading firms turn to failures when they focus too much on staying atop the current wave and stop worrying about winning the next one – making products that make a big difference makes all the difference. And. Everybody. Knows.This.
Ironically, pleasing the near-term focus of greedy, twitchy institutional investors is often the excuse claimed by CEOs who put quarterly profit ahead of planning for decade-long growth. But as the examples above show, investors scorn small, short-term thinking, too. To get their innovation groove back, these tech stalwarts need to put their sights back out to the horizon with insanely great, mind-blowing products like:
September should have been a banner month, not a bummer month (and there were a few glimmers of recklessly bold vision, like Google aiming to solve Death and rapper Kanye announcing his foray into architecture). If these giants were startups, they could have breakthrough strategies in place by September’s end. Given their girth, they can show customers and investors that they are serious about innovation by getting going now. “Seizing the Innovation Initiative” is the theme of the next Lux Executive Summit, so we look to see bold thinkers from Apple, Samsung, Nokia, and HP – or any company looking to avoid their mistakes – there if they haven’t shaped up by next spring.