SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Hewlett-Packard Co will outline plans to enter the commercial 3D-printing market in June, saying it has solved a number of technical problems that have hindered broader adoption of the high-tech manufacturing process.
HP’s foray is set to give added momentum to a fledgling industry so far dominated by smaller players like Stratasys unit Makerbot, and could help counter criticism that the sci-fi-like technology is over-hyped and still too immature for widespread consumer adoption.
Chief Executive Meg Whitman told shareholders on Tuesday the company will make a “big technology announcement” in June on how it will approach the market, saying inhouse researchers have resolved limitations involved with the quality of substrates used in the process, which affects the durability of finished products.
Another issue is the glacial speed with which objects actually print, Whitman said.
“It’s like watching ice melt. And the quality of today’s 3D printing is not as good as it should be — the surface of the substrate is not perfect,” she told an annual shareholders meeting. “We actually think we’ve solved these problems.”
“The bigger market is going to be in the enterprise space,” manufacturing parts and prototypes in ways that were not possible before, she added.
Industry observers have long expected HP, the largest of several printer-making companies from Canon to Xerox, to eventually get into the business.
The nascent but fast-growing technology may represent an interesting new area for HP, which is struggling to drum up revenue growth amid a global decline in PC sales and a difficult transition toward becoming more of a provider of networking, storage and services for enterprise clients.
HP executives have estimated that worldwide sales of 3D printers and related software and services will grow to almost $11 billion (6.6 billion pounds) by 2021 from a mere $2.2 billion in 2012.
MakerBot concentrates on selling more affordable devices to consumers, while contract manufacturers like Flextronics use the technology to help craft prototype parts or devices for corporate clients.
“HP is currently exploring the many possibilities of 3D printing and the company will play an important role in its development,” CTO and HP Labs director Martin Fink said in a February blogpost on HP’s website.
“The fact is that 3D printing is really still an immature technology, but it has a magical aura. The sci-fi movie idea that you can magically create things on command makes the idea of 3D printing really compelling for people.”
Reporting by Edwin Chan; Editing by Andrew Hay and Edwina Gibbs