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As HP moves into 3D printing, there may still be room for the little guys

The 3D-printing market should be big enough for HP and incumbent companies to thrive, some experts say. In fact, smaller rivals could benefit.

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Stratasys CEO David Reis, speaking at Normal's headquarters Thursday, highlighted the rapid growth of 3D printing. Ben Gabbe, courtesy of Stratasys

NEW YORK -- Hewlett-Packard could one day become the biggest fish in 3D printing, but that won't be a bad thing for the guppies already in the industry.

That's the view of David Reis, CEO of 3D-printing firm Stratasys, who in an interview Thursday sounded a mostly positive note about the new competition. HP just a day earlier unveiled plans to enter 3D printing by 2016 with its new technology, called Multi Jet Fusion.

"My initial reaction is it's good news," Reis said during an event his company hosted at the headquarters of Normal, a Manhattan-based company that makes custom earbuds using Stratasys machines. "It's good news to the extent that a company like HP endorses an industry that's a relatively small industry. I think HP coming into the market will increase awareness of what we're doing."

So far, 3D printing has carved out a niche helping manufacturers with developing and prototyping products before they go into mass production. However, the industry has yet to break into mainstream manufacturing and isn't often used in finished products or tools. Some industry watchers expect that to change in the coming years as 3D printers improve in making stronger products and generating them faster. Starting from a tiny base today, worldwide shipments of 3D printers should more than double every year from 2015 to 2018, according to market researcher Gartner. Shipments of 3D printers should hit more than 2.3 million by 2018, compared with the roughly 100,000 shipped this year.

HP, which has been selling printers and personal computers for decades, hopes to take advantage of that rapid expansion by becoming one of the first major tech firms to jump into 3D printing. It could substantially reshape the industry, which currently involves several much smaller players, including 3D Systems and ExOne. For example, Stratasys, based in Israel and Minnesota, has a market value of under $6 billion, while Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP is worth $66 billion.

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Stratasys Fortus 250mc 3D printers in Normal's headquarters in Manhattan. Ben Gabbe, courtesy of Stratasys

Stratasys' Reis said 3D printing as an industry is so broad -- touching aerospace, medical and consumer electronics, to name a few areas -- that it should be able to sustain a large entrant like HP. With Gartner forecasting spending on 3D printers jumping from $1.6 billion next year to $13.4 billion in 2018, Reis said, "There's enough space for everyone."

Also, HP doesn't plan to have its 3D-printing technology generally available until 2016, which Reis said gives its competitors some time to catch up on its innovations.

Stratasys, which merged with Israel's Objet in late 2012 to become one of the larger 3D-printing firms, posted stronger sales in its June quarter, up 68 percent to $178 million from a year earlier, thanks to a solid rise in printer shipments.

HP on Wednesday announced its new Multi Jet Fusion technology, claiming it's 10 times faster than that in existing 3D printers, is more affordable and prints stronger products than current offerings in the market. With those improvements, HP claims it can make 3D printing much more widely adopted than it is today.

HP is also jumping into 3D printing around the same time it's planning to split itself into two companies, with its business and government software and services side separating from its PC and printing business. The split will be completed by the end of October 2015.

Terry Wohlers, president of manufacturing consulting firm Wohlers Associates, said he's already seen HP machines using the new Multi Jet Fusion technology and was impressed by their speed. "It's dramatically faster" than current technology, he said.

He added that current 3D-printing companies have become somewhat "relaxed and complacent" in innovating to provide their customers with faster and cheaper machines. Considering that, Wohlers said, HP could help spark some needed changes in the industry.

He also agreed with Stratasys' Reis that HP could ultimately help several of its competitors, not drive them out of business. "When a tide goes up, all boats rise, and I think the same will happen here," he said.