Based in HP Labs’ headquarters building adjacent to the CWC, the Multi Jet Fusion 3D Customer Lab is said to be a place where customers and partners can both see and experience HP’s new 3D printers in action. This is also an active research facility, says Lihua Zhao, director of HP’s Advanced Material and Process Research team.
“We opened in late July and have seen over 200 customers, partners, and alliance partners come through the lab,” Zhao notes. “They see what our latest printers can do and also witness HP research in action, as we run experiments to refine our 3D technology and print items that help other HP Labs teams conduct their research.”
The lab’s star attractions are a pair of brand new, industrial-grade HP Jet Fusion 4200 3D printers, each with its own HP 4200 Processing Station. Visitors learn how print trolleys the size of a domestic dishwasher are pre-loaded with powdered 3D-printing material before being slotted into the main 3D-printer body. The HP 3D printer then “prints” layer by layer, filling the trolley and creating the parts.
After printing, the just-built items have to cool down, which can often take as long as the printing process. To avoid keeping the printer out of service for that time, the trolley is removed, placed into a Processing Station and another trolley is wheeled into place, so that production never stops.
At the processing station, the printed items are cooled, unpacked, and cleaned of any excess powder, which is recycled for use in the next print run, said to be “a huge milestone” in 3D printing, as, with traditional 3D-printing technology such as SLS (selective laser sintering), only 50 percent of the powder can be reused. However, HP says that with HP 3D printing, all of the left-over powder can be re-used.
“What this means is that you can keep an HP 3D printer going all the time, which is important to our customers as they like using these printers to manufacture customized parts,” says Zhao. “We like to point out that up to 50 percent of the printer components in each HP 4200 printing system are themselves printed on an HP 3D printer.”
Visitors at the new customer lab range from manufacturers that are already very familiar with 3D printing and want to see HP’s latest commercial offering, to customers that have yet to move into 3D printing but want a better sense of the technology’s potential. In addition to learning about the print process, visitors also get to see and handle final printed pieces and learn about the flexibility and economics of additive, 3D-printing manufacturing.
HP says that some visitors come with very specific questions or manufacturing needs in mind and the HP Labs engineers they meet can often point them to teams within HP’s business units that can help meet their needs or overcome their challenges. But these conversations also spark ideas for new research directions at HP Labs and potential new partnerships.
“That’s an important aspect of having the 3D Customer Lab in HP Labs,” Zhao says. “We are continually improving our technology and we can run research trials through these printers to better understand many practical challenges that we identify in these conversations and then try out potential solutions to them.”
The HP Labs 3D-printing research team is also using the facility to test and refine many of its own ideas for 3D-printing innovations – it can also draw on more advanced print test facilities that are the forerunners of future HP 3D printers – and to help other HP Labs groups conduct their research.
Researchers designing new software and storage solutions for end-to-end design/print/manufacturing processes, for example, can test their ideas in the near-commercial conditions of the 3D-printing facility. And one-off prototypes developed by teams in HP’s Immersive Experience Lab can now be easily printed on demand.
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