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How 3D Printing Could Save HP

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- I would love to believe Hewlett-Packard (HPQ - Get Report) can become great again. It's a great brand that stands for engineering excellence, white shirts and pocket protectors.

But that HP disappeared when Agilent (A) was spun out in 1999. What was left was a consumer products giant, a rumbling, bumbling, stumbling company trading on its name, growing in size but losing its reason for being.

CEO Meg Whitman keeps promising to turn things around, but her moves make no sense to me. The move that makes the least sense was the decision taken this summer to end its relationship with 3D printing leader Stratasys (SSYS), whose printers it had been selling as the "DesignJet" line since 2010.

This is a business at the very top of its hype cycle, projected to be a $3.1 billion industry in 2016 by Wohlers Associates. ( The report is available here.) Not much when your sales are running at $130 billion/year, but growing fast and ready to transform the world.

At his blog, Terry Wohlers says 3D printing, or "additive manufacturing," has reached a tipping point, where it moves from being a niche market to a mass market. That's when HP walks away?

At Shaping the Future, Christopher Barnatt notes there are many types of 3D printers. The Stratasys units HP sold use "fused deposition modeling" or FDM - injection molding plastic goes in as a thread and is deposited into the input design. Other types of 3D printing include:
  • Stereolithographers, or SLAs, which use lasers to deposit layers of polymer that is hardened after it's deposited.
  • Polyjet matrix devices that spray two polymers from a print head to harden quickly under an ultraviolet light.
  • Selective Laser Sintering, or SLS, devices that fuse layers of powder together and can use a variety of materials from wax and nylon to stainless steel and aluminum.
  • SLS machines that use metals are sometimes called Direct Metal Laser Sintering, or DMLS machines. You can also make metal objects by using SLS to create a mold you pour metal into, a production method almost as old as civilization.
  • Selective Laser Melting, or SLM, will fully melt the powder being used in molding, not just fuse it together.
  • Selective Heat Sintering, or SHS, uses a thermal print head instead of a laser to heat the powder being melted as it is deposited.
  • Multi-Jet Modeling, or MJM, uses an inkjet print head to bind successive layers of fused powder together into a final form.

Prices for most units run from $10,000-$20,000 but all use Computer Aided Design, or CAD, software as a common language. There is also a small consumer market, with prices as low as $399 for the "junior" version of the Printrbot kit, notes DVICE.

In the business world most 3D printers today are used for prototyping, but they can be used for final production in some highly-customized areas such as dental implants and motorcycle parts. I personally think this is going to expand into multiple industries rapidly, a "mass customization" revolution.

I'm not the only person who thinks so. Bob Lewis of Infoworld calls 3D printing a "litmus test" of IT leadership. The business is rapidly consolidating around two main players, Stratasys and 3D Systems (DDD), either of which HP could still acquire, SeekingAlpha notes, although maybe not for much longer. (Another way in might be by buying Autodesk (ADSK).)

What's amazing is that if you ask consumers to name a company involved in 3D printing, HP will likely be top of mind, thanks to DesignJet. But by spring the only HP offerings in this area may be a software solution it is working on with a company called SolidWorks, called the DesignJet T2300 platform, and a Web-based service called ePrint & Share for large-format printing of designs.

The opportunity could not be plainer. Buy the biggest 3D printer company you can, build out a retail presence offering consumer units, software services and custom production from larger machines, stock the rest of your line in those stores for a "halo effect," and tie the larger industrial market in with the cloud.

HP could get into this super-fast by buying into FedEx' (FDX) Kinkos' stores, which are getting stale anyway with plain paper copying and printing. Then imagine FedEx handling the deliveries.

The 3D printing market is already coming to retail, as BusinessWeek notes, with stores that look, and feel, like PC stores did in the 1970s.

Consolidating the opportunity, and dominating the market sounds like the biggest no-brainer in the history of Earth, a way for HP to grow again, to be relevant again, to have cachet again.

If HP has a coherent strategy on 3D printing, I would love to hear it. But right now it looks like this future will pass it by.

At the time of publication, the author had no investments in companies mentioned in this article. .

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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