HP's Opportunity & Challenge: 3D Printing Isn't Printing

First, the good news: Hewlett-Packard has finally unveiled its 3D printer strategy -- which combines with an "immersive computing" initiative. It all sounds really promising. But I've got a concern. Stated simply: I don't think 3D printing "is" printing. If HP wants to dominate the fast-growth 3D printing market, it will need to do far more than cross-sell and upsell its current printer customers. Here's why.

Let's start with the news of the day. HP announced, in the company's words:

  • "HP Multi Jet Fusion: A revolutionary technology engineered to resolve critical gaps in the combination of speed, quality and cost, and deliver on the potential of 3D printing."
  • "Sprout by HP: A first-of-its-kind Immersive Computing platform that redefines the user experience and creates a foundation for future immersive technologies."

HP claimed Multi Jet Fusion, built on HP Thermal Inkjet technology, will deliver:

  • performance that's 10-times faster than the fastest 3D printers on the market today.
  • new levels of quality, strength and durability.
  • better accuracy and deeper details.
  • 3D print processes that reduce running time, costs, energy consumption and waste.

At a high level, I'm impressed. Over the past few years, CEO Meg Whitman has stabilized HP and she has promised -- repeatedly -- to jumpstart innovation in the HP garage. With HP Multi Jet Fusion, she may have achieved that goal.

HP: New Rivals, New Market

When the HP 3D printers arrive in 2016, Hewlett-Packard will finally compete with such players as 3D Systems, MakerBotStratasys and Ultimaker (among others).

What's at stake? The 3D market will double in size each year -- for the next few years. By 2018, annual sales of 3D printer systems will top $13.4 billion, Gartner predicts.

Meanwhile, HP's traditional printer business is contracting. In its most recent quarter, HP's printer-related revenues were $5.59 billion, down from $5.80 billion in the same quarter last year.

You can also look at the math this way: At an annualized run rate, HP is selling about $22 billion worth of traditional printer equipment each year -- far bigger than the $13.4 billion 3D printer market Gartner expects to see by 2018.

3D vs Traditional Printers: Different Markets (Mostly)

Further complicating matters: I don't think a lot of HP's current printer customers will be interested in 3D printers... at least not for the next few years.

Think about it. The vast majority of traditional printer sales involve customers who simply want to print documents, presentations, and other business or school materials -- text and graphics.

Somewhere within that total universe of HP printer sales, there's a subset of customers that will want 3D printers. For example, HP has deep relationships with manufacturers, CAD/CAM designers, artists and other vertical market customers that will likely be early 3D printer adopters.

Additional Upside

Assuming Multi Jet Fusion technology delivers on HP's claims, the technology could give a big boost to Meg Whitman's company breakup plan.

That plan calls for one HP business to sell enterprise products, and a second HP business to focus just on printers and PCs. That second business hopes to be No. 1 in the 3D printer market. But HP is late to the game. And like I said, I don't think 3D printers have much to do with the traditional printer market.

If I'm wrong please tell my why.

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