3D printing's great mystery: Where's HP?

HP could roll out its 3D printing lineup tomorrow and there's a good argument that the company is too late. Perhaps Stratasys or 3D Systems is the next HP?
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman in March said watching 3D print projects complete was like "watching ice melt," that quality was lax and that her company "solved both of those problems."

Whitman's riff on 3D printing was in response to a shareholder question at HP's annual meeting. Off script, Whitman said there would be an announcement in June about HP's 3D printing plans, which would address the enterprise market first.

We're still waiting. HP could roll out its 3D printing lineup tomorrow and there's a good argument that the company is too late.

Analysts are expecting HP to outline its 3D printing master plan some time in the fall, but it's stunning how late the company is to the game. HP has prototypes in progress and a 3D printing pipeline of some sort, but it may want to start commercializing and marketing before it's too late.

Perhaps HP plans to buy its way into 3D printing by acquiring Stratasys or another player. Perhaps HP truly does have technology that will leapfrog the industry. Perhaps HP has the scale to take its time to enter a commercial 3D market that's maturing quickly.

One thing is certain: The longer HP waits, the higher the stakes get. It's quite possible that in 3D printing a company like Stratasys or 3D Systems is the new HP. Stratasys, which has enterprise and consumer products for 3D printing, appears to be the most likely candidate to be the new HP.

Consider Stratasys, which owns MakerBot in the consumer space but derives most of its revenue from the enterprise, and has more than 50 percent market share in additive manufacturing and industrial systems. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that 67 percent of manufacturers are adopting additive manufacturing — the hot spot for 3D printing — in some way, with another 25 percent planning to use it.

HP needs to get going in the 3D printing market pronto. Here's what Cowen & Co. is projecting for Stratasys in the years ahead.

stratasys outlook

And Stratasys' annual sales are expected to trail 3D Systems in 2014. Analysts are expecting 3D Systems' revenue to be $713 million in 2014.

Now maybe a business approaching $1 billion a year in sales isn't enough to inspire HP, which is expected to have revenue of $110 million in fiscal 2014, but 3D printing gives the company something to talk about. HP has a hardware business under fire, a cloud transition to manage and needs growth to offset the challenges ahead.

What's particularly crazy is that HP doesn't have an innovator's dilemma about 3D printing. It's not like 3D printing will replace the ink-fueled market dominated by HP. The company has spent the last few years fixing messes left behind by its last two CEOs (Leo Apotheker, Mark Hurd), and may have been too occupied with restructuring to lead the 3D printing charge. Apotheker nuked HP's balance sheet with the acquisition of Autonomy. Hurd hit his numbers, looked like a superstar for a few years, but gutted HP's R&D spending.

Whitman has mopped up a lot of HP's messes, but the big question is whether the company has missed the 3D printing curve going forward.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener

Editorial standards