A 3D printer. Picture: REUTERS
A 3D printer. Picture: REUTERS

New York-listed HP, which makes personal computers and printers, plans to launch its fledgling 3D-printing business in SA in early 2019.

Otherwise known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing refers to the construction of three-dimensional objects using digital files. By building products layer by layer, the technology is expected to cut manufacturing costs and waste.

“The technology is perceived very much as a viable replacement for traditional manufacturing methods,” Scott Schiller, global head of customer and market development for HP’s 3D-printing division, told Business Day.

In other markets, HP’s 3D-printing machines are being used to make prototypes and production parts for companies including BMW, Volkswagen, Nike and Johnson & Johnson.

“The market verticals we tend to look at are ones like health care, automotives, consumer goods and aerospace and other forms of mobility,” Schiller said.

HP had become the world’s largest player in the commercial plastics segment of the market, referring to machines that make objects with plastics and cost more than $100,000 (R1.4m), he said. It recently started producing machines that use metals — mostly steel — to 3D-print goods and parts.

David Rozzio, MD of HP’s SA business, said the company is  currently setting up its distribution channels in SA and aims “to have everything set up in the beginning of next year”.

“To me, the biggest opportunity is to create new businesses or ecosystems around the technology,” Rozzio said. “In SA, it could help to support new businesses and entrepreneurs, and R&D [research and development].”

However, Schiller said the 3D-printing industry was still in its infancy.

“We have a lot of work to do to build the market, we still have to build it up use-case by use-case. But the technology is just so flexible that you can make so many different things, it’s just going to be fascinating to see what the market itself does with it.”

Earlier in 2018, the first 3D-printed house was made in Texas.

“It’s got some interesting potential [for homes] but it’s not where we’re focused at the moment,” Schiller said.

Meanwhile, the consumer market for 3D printers is already gaining traction in SA.

JSE-listed Mustek, which distributes 3D printers for XYZprinting, reported limited sales from that unit earlier in 2018, but CEO David Kan said revenues were expected to grow quickly.