You can't print a new lung or Stradivarius violin yet, but a new HP 3D printer announced Thursday takes a big step toward making the technology more useful.
The Jet Fusion 5200 is designed for high-volume manufacturing. That's a market with more potential for profound change than the more common 3D printers used to build prototypes or, like HP's earlier Jet Fusion 4200, for small-scale production. HP, a giant in more conventional printing on paper and, too, didn't disclose prices.
3D printing, which creates objects by laying down tiny "voxels" of material layer by layer, is transforming manufacturing. It's good for turning a 3D model crafted inside a computer into physical object, even those with complicated shapes or weight-saving internal voids.
So far you can't push a button and get something as complex as a car engine or running shoe, but gradually more components of such products can be 3D printed. It's a vision grand enough that fans call it the fourth industrial revolution.
Another development that'll help bring that about is a partnership with BASF that'll let customers 3D print with the flexible plastic called thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) with the HP Jet Fusion 5200. One customer: wind turbine maker Vestas, which will use it for impact-absorbing clamps. HP also showed off a helmet made using the material internally.
Most 3D print jobs today use more conventional plastics, though HP in 2018 introduced its Metal Jet 3D printer for making metal products. Those need to be finished with a process called sintering before they're ready for use, though.
The 3D printing industry is still maturing, said Clément Moreau, chief executive of 3D printing company Sculpteo, an HP partner. For example, it was outbid by a traditional manufacturing company on a recent contract to manufacture some elements of a train station. "3D printing large metallic parts is quite expensive," he said.
But Sculpteo also is encountering a lot of clients in architectural markets where people need to do things like see whether different parts will fit together or envision different possibilities for new buildings. For example, Sculpteo has been involved in a project to restore the abbey atop France's famous Mont-St.-Michel, and Moreau expects similar work after the devastating fire at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.
"People will definitely need a lot of engineering mockups and visualization mockups to really see what will happen," Moreau said.
Originally published May 9, 12:15 a.m. PT.
Update, 11:34 a.m.: Adds comments from HP partner Sculpteo.