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HP promises a fast enterprise 3D printer for 2016 that will cost…something

After teasing it for more than a year, HP has finally revealed its very first 3D printer. We still don’t know what it will cost, though HP says the price will be competitive. We do know the company really has developed a new 3D printing technique that has the potential to be pretty fast.

As promised, the printer is built for the enterprise. It’s a huge device the size of an office copy machine, so it’s definitely not about to fit on your desk. The “best in class total cost of ownership” HP is touting could still put its price tag at $100,000 or more.

HP describes how the 3D printer works as “multi-jet fusion.” The printer deposits a layer of liquid plastic, followed by a coating that goes specifically where the plastic needs to fuse together. Multiple heads allow the printer to put down an entire layer in one sweep. Then the materials are heated to fuse them together into a solid.

An object printed on the HP 3D printer. Photo by HP.
An object printed on the HP 3D printer. Photo by HP.

It’s very much related to the inkjet technology that has been HP’s business for years. It also sounds a bit like 3D printing giant Stratasys’ PolyJet technology, which also uses multiple heads to deposit a liquid material. PolyJet printers use an ultraviolet light to cure the plastic.

But HP stated that its printer has capabilities beyond what Stratasys’ model can do. It is supposedly 10 times faster than traditional fused deposition modeling, the technology most desktop 3D printers use, because it puts down an entire layer of material at once.

The printer planned for 2016 will be limited to printing in black thermoplastic. HP already has a prototype that can print in full color (Stratasys’ color machine can do up to 46 colors in a print, which is convincingly close to full color). It is also working on printing parts with different properties. Its prototype allows for texture, friction, strength and elasticity to be tweaked. It is also working on printing with materials that are conductive or have different thermal properties, which could open up interesting applications for printing electronics.

If HP delivers on all of the features promised, it could become an easy choice for both small and large businesses. Printing faster with more control over the nature of what is printed solves a lot of problems people currently have with 3D printing. The quality it prints at isn’t any better than its rivals, but it’s high enough to make the printer attractive for both prototyping and small-batch manufacturing.

The printer will be widely available not now, not next year, but in 2016. It’s possible that HP is timing its release to coincide with a jump in interest in 3D printing. Sales are projected to grow dramatically over the next few years; in March, Canalys projected $3.8 billion in sales this year, which will grow to $16.2 billion in 2018. A 2013 Gartner study found that while consumer 3D printers will sell by far the most units by 2017, enterprise printers will make up the bulk of revenue.

HP plans to get its printer out to a few companies before 2016. Shapeways, which prints 3D objects on demand via an online marketplace, will debut the HP printer as an option for its customers. Shapeways uses top-of-the-line printers from many different companies to offer varied types of prints, so it’s interesting to see HP included.

HP also revealed a computer called Sprout that scans 2D and 3D objects. Scanning is a huge complement to 3D printing, as it allows users to quickly digitize the real world. Objects can then be altered or repaired and then 3D printed. Sprout will cost $1,899.

This story was updated at 12:15 p.m. to reflect that the printer planned for 2016 will print in black thermoplastic, not full-color or conductive materials.