With 3D printing, HP could go back to its tech roots

HP CEO hints at major move into 3D printing -- and potential return to nuts-and-bolts technology in which HP once excelled

When was the last time we loved HP for making a piece of hardware that wasn't just a notebook? Too long, it seems.

The company that once made the best laser printers (and calculators and scientific equipment) may have found something new to sink its teeth into: 3D printing.

As originally reported by The Register, HP CEO Meg Whitman spoke in Bangkok at the Canalys Channels Forum about how the company wanted to enter the 3D printing market in 2014 and "lead this business."

Her comments hinted at how 3D printing could be made far less time-consuming: "To print a bottle can take eight to 10 hours. That's all very interesting, but it is like watching ice melt."

Given the venue, many of her comments were clearly aimed at businesses rather than individuals. But having a company the size of HP sink its teeth into a technology problem like 3D printing is a way to all but guarantee it'll become a commodity technology.

HP produced a 3D printer back in 2010 under the Designjet brand, a label HP normally uses for their wide-format printers and plotters. But with its $17,000 price tag, it was clearly aimed at the corporate and high-end industrial market. It didn't stand to make much of a splash with the same crowd that could pick up a MakerBot Replicator 2 for $2,199.

But $2,199 is still a lot of money. A big part of what could further drive down the cost of 3D printing wouldn't just be cheaper printers, but a larger net of support for them. Color printing has gone from a costly luxury to casual availability for the end-user, in big part thanks to a whole subindustry that provides the inks.

HP could follow a similar route and supply not just the printers, but create a whole ecosystem to support them and further drive down costs. That would include the raw materials, the designs (especially those that require licensing), and so on. It's not a feat HP could accomplish casually, but it would show a commitment to driving down prices across the ecosystem.

There's little question HP is entering a market that may already be dominated from the bottom up, though. The sheer number of 3D printing devices that are crowdfunded is proof of that: the QU-BD One Up, the Helix, and the Asterid. But there's always room for competition: MakerBot, one of the few household names in the space, was recently purchased by another 3D printer maker, Stratasys, for some $403 million in stock.

If HP decides to make this a major commitment, it'll be a pleasant surprise to those who still want to associate that venerable company with its hands-on high-tech roots. The company's recent line of good-to-great Ultrabooks (the Folio, the Revolve) was one step in that direction, and showed HP still has the engineering chops to make great hardware. Now let's see what else it can make.

This story, "With 3D printing, HP could go back to its tech roots," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.


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