With 3D printers and nanofingers, HP Labs builds a new future

HP's research division is trying to figure how to marry the computing technology with the physical world. The work can get a bit sci-fi.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise Processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science. Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
5 min read
HP has repurposed its inkjet printers to construct structures from living cells.​
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HP has repurposed its inkjet printers to construct structures from living cells.​

HP has repurposed its inkjet printers to construct structures from living cells.

James Martin/CNET

Get ready for the third chapter in the book of Silicon Valley.

During the first chapter, innovation in Silicon Valley was about atoms, carving up silicon wafers into the electronic transistors that started the computing revolution. The second one, more ethereal, brought the triumph of internet services like Facebook and Google.

To be competitive now, a company must blend both approaches. That's the view of HP Chief Engineer Chandrakant Patel, who rose through the HP Labs ranks over 30 years to secure 151 patents and become the company's chief engineer.

"The 21st century will require Silicon Valley to be a cyber-physical valley," Patel said.

He's not the only one with the idea. Tesla Motors is designing self-driving cars . Google is testing self-piloting stratospheric balloons that deliver internet access to humans below. Amazon is automating fast delivery to build instant gratification into e-commerce. And with the internet of things, computing power could spread to just about anything that uses electricity.

This model of HP Lab's nanofingers, thousands of times larger than the real-world item, shows the pillars that can effectively grasp individual molecules for analysis.
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This model of HP Lab's nanofingers, thousands of times larger than the real-world item, shows the pillars that can effectively grasp individual molecules for analysis.

This model of HP Lab's nanofingers, thousands of times larger than the real-world item, shows the pillars that can effectively grasp individual molecules for analysis.

James Martin/CNET

In his three decades at HP and HP Labs, Patel has seen massive changes. One was the 1999 separation of the Agilent division that made the kind of test and measurement products Bill Hewlett and William Packard did when founding Hewlett-Packard in 1939. And exactly one year ago, the company split in two again -- into consumer-focused HP and into Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which sells IT products and services to business customers.

But the fundamental job of HP Labs, founded 50 years ago, hasn't changed. Its staff does everything from researching basic physics research to developing prototypes that can be handed off to HP's product teams.

HP Labs: From basic chemistry to better printing

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There's nothing wrong with building a social network for football fans or an app to review rock bands. But HP Labs works at a more fundamental level. Focus areas include new user interfaces for computers , the internet of things, computing security, biotechnology and 3D printing.

Toward the Diamond Age

HP rose to fame selling printers ranging from home inkjets costing less than $100 to hulking $500,000 Indigo machines that print four full-color pages each second. HP Labs has helped improve print speeds and is working to transform components that wear out today into ones that last ever longer and eventually never have to be replaced. But the really radical transformation will be to move beyond ink on paper.

One idea: printing "2.5D" objects that are mostly flat but that have some texture or structure -- electronic circuit boards or oil painting reproductions, for example. Manufacturing with full 3D printing promises even grander changes.

Inside the garage where Silicon Valley started

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In March, HP announced 3D printing technology that's 10 times faster, 10 times cheaper, and produces materials 10 times stronger than what was previously available, according to Keith Moore, the vice president leading HP Labs' 2D and 3D printing work.

Sci-fi fans may remember Neal Stephenson's book, "The Diamond Age," with devices that assemble products molecule by molecule. That's far beyond today's technology -- but it's where HP is trying to go.

Layer by layer

3D printing puts down layer after layer of tiny dots called voxels that are about 26 millionths of a meter on edge, a quarter the width of a human hair. Just as printing on paper expanded from black ink to colored ink, HP is working hard to transform 3D printing with new ingredients so you can customize the properties of whatever you're printing, Moore said.

You'll be able to specify which elements of a product are flexible or rigid, electrically conductive or somewhat insulating, coarsely textured or smoothly metallic, bright orange or transparent.

​HP Labs adapted its PageWide technology for faster 3D printing.
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​HP Labs adapted its PageWide technology for faster 3D printing.

HP Labs adapted its PageWide technology for faster 3D printing.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

To get it working, HP Labs creates and investigates materials in a chemistry lab filled with beakers, flasks, fume hoods and purple-gloved researchers. "This is where you see molecules interacting with each other," said Lihau Zhao, a senior research program manager at HP Labs.

HP Labs also has tried to speed up 3D printing, adapting HP's PageWide printing technology ink-printing technology to place many voxels in parallel instead of one at a time. Since introducing its first inkjet printer in 1984, HP has been able to roughly double the number of ink droplets per second it can print on paper about every two years, and PageWide has been part of that progress.

Future of computing

Central services are all the rage today -- Facebook social networking, Google search, and Uber ride hailing all centralize the brains of the computing operation in data centers, with phones or laptops dipping in as needed. Patel, though, sees a role for computing at the edges of the infrastructure, not just the center.

It's part of Patel's cyber-physical philosophy. We'll need computing power to be distributed all over for computers to be able to make decisions rapidly enough, whether that's self-driving cars or pipe-inspection robots that can make repairs on the spot.

HP Chief Engineer Chandrakant Patel
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HP Chief Engineer Chandrakant Patel

HP Chief Engineer Chandrakant Patel at the garage where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded the company

James Martin/CNET

"The vision we talk about is ambient computing," Patel said. "Computing is everywhere."

HP Labs also works on computing interface technology. With ambient computing, an airplane jet maintenance worker could remotely inspect a jet engine, Patel believes. That'll go beyond just peering with a remote camera to include tactile sensations, too -- a marriage of digital and physical worlds, he said.

One tricky part of ambient computing is that computers go out of date, opening insecurities and risking obsolescence. Patel expects help from processors called field programmable gate arrays, or FPGAs, that can be reconfigured the way we update our phone software today.

Grasping nanofingers

HP Labs' multidisciplinary approach extends to the life sciences. It's not sequencing genes or coming up with diabetes drugs, but it is technology could make that kind of work easier.

One example: microscopic five-pronged "nanofingers" that can grasp a single molecule so a laser-zapping process called Raman spectroscopy can be used to identify it.

The goal: sensors that work in the field for rapid assessment of things like food contamination in processing centers, said Anita Rogacs, an HP Labs master technologist. It's like taking your child's temperature yourself instead of hauling the kid to the hospital -- or to draw on sci-fi again, like the tricorder Spock used to analyze just about anything on "Star Trek."

HP also is repurposing printing technology with related microfluidics technology that squirts liquids other than inkjet ink. A researcher could print out constructions made of different cells to mimic tissue types, then run tests to see how the teams of cells work together.

The researchers know many of their explorations will be dead ends. But HP Labs is confident its projects overall will eventually bring us closer to sci-fi ideas.

"We can perfectly predict the future," Moore said. "We just can't predict which year it'll show up."