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HP Jet Fusion technology is breaking ground into serious manufacturing; it’s the real deal, says Styles.

Clare Goldsberry

December 20, 2016

6 Min Read
The next big thing in 3D printing: An Interview with Gordon Styles, founder and President of Star Prototype

The manufacturing sector waited for more than two decades for 3D printing to become more than a “prototyping” method and move onto the factory floor for the production of end use parts. With the evolution of 3D printing using true engineering plastics, companies can now print end-use parts for low-volume applications. Gordon Styles, founder and President of Star Prototype (Guangdong, China), a global prototyping and low-volume manufacturer, spoke with PlasticsToday about 3D printing industry trends for 2017.

Gordon Styles, founder and President of Star Prototype.

PlasticsToday: What do you think the single biggest thing will be in 2017 with regard to 3D printing?

Gordon Styles: Typically we don’t see a big change—just gradual or incremental changes in this technology. However, I think the single biggest trend when looking at next year—a major step change—is the Hewlett Packard Jet Fusion 3D 4200 printer. It took years for them to develop this, but HP is going at it in a very professional way. 

I started my business—Styles Rapid Product Development Ltd. (Styles RPD)—in 1993, so I was an early adopter. In the 1990s, we saw the biggest step change with the introduction of epoxy resins for stereolithography in 1993. Before that it was acrylic, but that was unstable and very inaccurate. Epoxy took load strength models to very high accuracy and high mechanical strength. Since then it has been small steps. There’s never really been that real step change where suddenly you get much better speed or accuracy. The HP Jet Fusion technology is a step change, and, according to industry watchers such as Terry Wohlers, it’s the real deal.

PT: What do you expect to see with the advent of the HP Jet Fusion 3D printer?

GS: We’ll see a machine with five to 10 times faster printing speed. I attended a show in Shanghai, where they had samples and the surface finish of the part was good. It was a nylon material and it’s strong—really strong. I was impressed. To prove it out, most of the moving parts in their machine were actually built on their own machine.

What I think we’ll see is 3D printing of plastic parts breaking through into mainstream manufacturing. 3D printing typically has been in the domain of prototyping and very specialized ultra-low-volume manufacturing. It’s never really broken into the mainstream, but the HP Jet Fusion is breaking ground into serious manufacturing. People are making 2,000 to 3,000 parts, and I think the HP will get the price down for these parts. The HP Jet Fusion is very professionally designed, and they’ll iron out the wrinkles. We’ve actually got our names on the list to buy one. We’ll have it in one of our U.S. offices where we’ll experiment with it. We’ll offer prototypes with it but that’s probably a year away. There’s a long waiting list.

Its impact on the 3D printing industry will be big. If there is one particular machine it really threatens to disrupt it is selective laser sintering (SLS), which has had almost a monopoly on nylon parts. I wouldn’t like to be in their shoes. I’ve never liked SLS because you can’t easily sand and paint it. It doesn’t make a good part to paint, so at Star Prototype we’ve gone back to stereolithography for our master models for cast urethanes.

PT: But injection molding is so adapted to extremely high volumes, even the HP machine can’t claim to replace it for part production.

GS: I agree with that. All the HP machine does is push up the threshold that you need to justify injection molding. Metal 3D printing is going mainstream because it allows the manufacture of complex parts that can’t be machined. These are two fundamentally different sectors and you can’t apply the same concept to plastic as you can to metal. The quality of metal powder is exceptional; the density is 99.8% and above, and the mechanical properties fit somewhere between rolled stock and forged stock. You can heat treat it, as well. Titanium is so hard that you have to temper, or heat treat, it. We’ve got really awesome metals that allow for printing many end-use parts such as turbine blades and military applications. We will start to see commercial aircraft engines with turbine blades from 3D-printed metal; they are already commonplace in commercial turbines from GE.

PT: What are some of the challenges for producing metal end-use parts?

GS: You really have to design for the manufacturing process. In 1993, we would get files and build it with just a few tweaks, but we didn’t have to change the design to fit the process. You’d only lose one build out of a hundred. But with metals, it’s totally different. Customers have to design for the process and angle features at 45 degrees or greater, or they will need lots of support. With direct laser melting (DLM), you’d tear your fingers off trying to remove the supports. The job of the designer is to remove as many supports as possible. Horizontal holes can’t be bigger than 4 to 8 mm in diameter. You always have to be thinking about the angle at which you’re building.

If you were a prototyping company specializing in metal, you need to do development work to get the part right. Once you hone in and lock down that program, the machine will churn out thousands of parts for many years. It’s an extremely stable process once you get the geometry right. You only have to design one turbine blade, for example. When we see the growth of machine sales in DLM, it’s not because there’s an explosive growth of individual part geometries being built. It is that when a part geometry is suitable, it becomes a production item and you might need one or more machines just to cater to the production of that one part geometry. Once designers have figured out how to design for DLM, then there will be an unbelievable groundswell in metal 3D-printing machines.

PT: A lot of global manufacturers have invested in metal 3D printing, such as GE Aviation buying Morris Technologies a number of years ago, and Moog, which purchased Linear Mold & Engineering about a year ago. How does this impact subcontract 3D-printing companies?

GS: In the subcontract sector, things are not growing as much. Typically, a contract 3D printing company will fill a machine or two for part production. That’s more common in the subcontract business.  Looking at metal 3D printing, when GE bought Arcam and then Concept Laser, it sent shock waves through the industry. Our greatest concern was that GE would dominate all of the production of these companies just to satisfy its own growth needs. I think, however, it would be a short term problem. I can just imagine that many other companies would grow to fill the needs of the subcontract sector. That said, we have been told by one of the companies acquired that GE has no such plans. Well, we will wait and see.

PT:  What is your #1 prediction for the metal 3D-printing sector for 2017?

GS: I would have to say that [we will see] a significant increase in the number of designers that learn how to design for the technology. Star Prototype, for one, will start taking in groups of designers for a couple of weeks at a time to learn how to run a machine and design for the process—a mini crash course, if you like. I hope all our competitors follow suit, as it would benefit the entire industry.

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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