HP Labs

Behind HP’s new Metal Jet 3D Print technology lies a powerful collaborative research effort

By Simon Firth, HP Labs Correspondent — October 17, 2018

HP recently announced the debut of HP Metal Jet, the world’s most advanced metals production 3D printing technology. This technology promises to deliver mechanically functional final parts with up to 50x higher productivity and at a substantially lower cost when compared to existing metal 3D printing systems.

Significantly, the technology was developed internally by researchers in HP’s 3D Print business working in collaboration with colleagues in HP Labs.

“We are the largest microfluidics jetting company in the world and already have successful production 3D plastics printing,” notes Lihua Zhao, HP Distinguished Technologist and Director of Advanced 3D Research at HP Labs. “This effort leverages our existing infrastructure and expertise to extend our capabilities in an exciting new direction.”

Photo by HP

The HP Labs Metal Jet research team. From left to right: Kris Erickson, Seongsik Chang, Samuel Dilip, Paul Olubummo, Lihua Zhao, Chris Nauka, Howard Tom and Tom Anthony

The joint research program began three years ago, after engineers from HP’s 3D Printing business group and HP Labs met to discuss how the company might advance its already-announced 3D printing initiative into the realm of printing metals.

“We first needed to establish that HP really could make a difference,” Zhao recalls. “So we put all the available 3D metal printing solutions on the table and asked what were their current benefits and challenges – as well as which markets could we really impact?’

One important area of study was what HP alone could bring to 3D metal printing. The clear answer was HP’s long experience in developing micro-jetting technology. HP Labs engineers had also been investigating metal 3D printing and had many demonstrators that both drove confidence in HP’s unique value proposition and offered the combined team a valuable head start in their investigation.

HP’s earlier decision to pursue production 3D plastics printing was another key factor. Rather than focus on consumer or jewelry markets, a focus on production manufacturing would require a significant increase in the speed of metal printing, a dramatic reduction in cost, and an approach that would make the entire process far more user-friendly – all areas in which HP was equipped to make an impact.

 

“Although there’s lots to still address, we’re very excited about the work. The preliminary results from our research have demonstrated a new approach to solving some of the fundamental challenges in metals.”

Lihua Zhao, HP Distinguished Technologist and Director of Advanced 3D Research at HP Labs

By late 2016, the joint team had strong enough results to suggest that an internally-developed solution focused on 3D printing stainless steel could achieve the quality and efficiencies required for a production manufacturing solution. The team pitched the idea to senior company leadership and quickly received the go ahead to make it happen.

Engineers from the research and business arms now focused on their own areas of specialization. While the print team worked to develop an entirely new printer with the speed and economy they needed, HP Labs researchers delved deeper into the physics and chemistry of the metal print methodology known as Metal Jet technology.

This is a two-step process. First a “green body” is printed in a combination of metal particles and a “liquid functional agent” that binds the particles together. The green body is then put through a set of thermal processes that results in a single metal piece.

While the approach of using a green part with a binder isn’t new, the team has developed several novel techniques that are aimed to overcome traditional issues and suggest a trajectory for dramatically improving quality and efficiency of the metal binder jet approach.

“Although there’s lots to still address, we’re very excited about the work,” says Zhao. “The preliminary results from our research have demonstrated a new approach to solving some of the fundamental challenges in metals.”

Her expert team – which includes applied physicists, a metallurgist, a materials scientist, and a chemist – continues to coordinate research with the 3D Printing group sharing results and learnings from their own experimental work and that of other research institutions to help the 3D metal printing group continue to advance HP’s metal technology.

At the same time, they remain engaged in longer-term 3D printing research.

Current investigations include an effort to digitally manipulate properties of printed metal parts at the voxel level - a feat HP has already achieved with other printed materials.

“We are also looking at broadening our capabilities to print metals other than stainless steel,” Zhao says. “There’s a lot more to be done before we can say we’ve fully met the grand challenge of metal 3D printing overall.”