In its over 80 years, the company has constantly reinvented itself to adapt to changing social and technological realities. We talked with three of their executives to understand their transformation, the starkest example of which is their rapid response to the coronavirus pandemic.
By Patricia R. Guevara
Although our lives are increasingly immersed in a digital bubble, the tangible is still indispensable. A photograph, a city map, or the floorplan of a house continue to provide a markedly different experience when we hold them on paper. Of course, there are tangible things that have literally become vital in the past months. Respirators, personal protective equipment (PPE), face shields, and masks have left traditional production and begun to be produced through 3D printing.
If there’s a company where technology is the catalyst, it’s HP. Considered the first great Silicon Valley startup, HP was born in 1939 in a California garage, as entrepreneurial canon dictates. A lot has changed since then, but the last five years have seen some of the most dramatic change. We talked to three HP experts in Barcelona, to get an in-depth understanding of this innovative journey, from paper to the third dimension, and from the home printer to printing services.
Photo: The president of HP's 3D printing business, Ramón Pastor.
From the Physical to the Digital
Technological disruption knocked at the door for printing at HP in 2014. The president of HP’s 3D printing business, Ramón Pastor, recalls: “We began identifying new trends, resulting from a profound demographic change, globalization and hyperlocalization, and the desire for personalization from clients.” A new way of conceptualizing printing consumption and large-scale printing was arriving. “With 3D applications we say that engineers and architects were no longer printing. We had to detect other opportunities,” adds vice-president and general manager for HP’s large format design business, Guayente Sanmartín.
The business model evolved rapidly. The global chief and general manager of PaaS (Printing as a Service) solutions business, Joan Pérez, explains: “Let’s say we sold iron––printers, hardware ink––and now we sell a service, paying for printing. Now we can adjust the cost and reach more people. For example, there has always been a perception that ink is very expensive; now you can pay for a subscription and forget about it.”
This new model has also benefited small and medium-sized enterprises and startups that did not have the financial muscle to acquire novel technologies, but they can pay for the exact service that they need. Pérez points out that “There are many entrepreneurs, creatives, and small businesses with great ideas that can use our services, whether 2D or 3D, à la carte.” For this, the key is cloud computing. “At HP we built a portfolio of printing services based in the cloud to connect clients with our network and printers. The future of printing will be through this technology that enables us to automatize service much more.”
The cloud is not the only technology associated with printing; there is much more behind it all. “Printers are not just machines that print. Behind them is machine learning so that the printer understands the context of what is being printed and can adjust parameters to optimize the process,” says Sanmartín.
HP digitalizes as many processes as possible thanks precisely to an increasingly broad technological spectrum. “Robotics, IIoT [industrial internet of things], big data, artificial intelligence, digital twins… In industry 4.0 all of these technologies converge and enable the flexibility of digital processes,” explains Pastor. For example, digital simulations enable advance estimates of how many machine and workers are necessary, define the workflow, and save time and money.
“This is how industries are transformed: we have gone from a paradigm of centralized production en masse, with generic products, to a new paradigm where we produce according to demand, in a personalized and distributed manner,” summarizes Pastor. It’s not just about changing the printer, “it’s about designing differently, understanding the ecosystem and connecting all the pieces. Without the convergence of these technologies, this is impossible,” adds Pérez.
Photo: The general manager of the large-format printing business, Guayente Sanmartín.
Lever of Transversal Change
This convergence of innovation and paradigm shift in 3D printing, large format printing, and printing as a service have had a transversal impact on all industries. For example, in the editorial sector, “There is a digitalization of the entire chain of production. Now there is a demand for personalized books and products, people buy online by demand (first we sell then we produce), and printing is local and more immediate,” says Pérez.
This is evident in very different industries, like automobiles, where “new modes of construction derived from electric cars are being considered,” and aeronautics, “where optimal geometrics are sought out by designing pieces in 3D,” adds Pastor.
In healthcare the utility is clear: “The difference between choosing a prosthetic in standard measurements A, B, or C, or personalizing it after scanning exact measurements is enormous.” If there is a sector where 3D printing has stood out in recent months, it is precisely this one.
Mission Against the Coronavirus
COVID-19 has made it so that absolutely every industry is looking toward a common problem and has concentrated their creativity to search for solutions. In HP’s case, they immediately understood that they needed to act and analyze local needs. This is why they dived into designed PPE prototypes, respirators, and masks that they could create through 3D printing.
“We had an incredible reaction from people. More than 600 people volunteered to offer their time to design and we were able to produce more than two and a half million pieces globally,” says Pastor. For the company, quickly switching from “producing dental equipment to printing masks” is a clear example of flexibility and resilience, which has demonstrated that 3D printing is “an industry that can react in the face of circumstances as drastic as a pandemic.”
Photo: The global chief and general manager of PaaS (Printing as a Service) solutions business, Joan Peréz.
“We don’t sell printers, we assist in the creative process. Our mission is making our clients’ work easier,” emphasizes Sanmartín. However, in order to reach this objective, the mentality of the company also had to transform, beginning with the employees themselves.
“The process of change begins with people,” says Sanmartín. Thus, another mission of HP’s is that “every member of the organization grows.” To achieve this, the company carries out different actions: expert talks (for example, with Singular University), workshops on new digital skills, technological pills, new innovation methodologies, and so on. This includes a process called “idea sprint,” where every employee can propose innovative projects. “Without anything new, it is very difficult for people to suddenly change their way of doing things,” concludes Sanmartín.
Cultural transformation toward innovation does not solely consist of developing talent within the company; it’s key to know when to bring it from outside. “There is a lot of powerful technology at HP, but in other spheres we are inexperienced so it is interesting to carry out collaborations,” shares Pérez.
He believes that Spain is a country without much of a corporate acquisition culture, and he adds: “It’s a shame, because there is a very strong startup fabric. Changes are so fast that we have to make more of an effort to also innovate externally.”
Photo: By following 3D printing processes and reducing waste, HP has created components for masks to protect from COVID-19.
Another one of the company’s missions, which is framed both as an intrinsic value of the organization and an imperative global trend, is betting on sustainable printing; an arena where HP declared itself a pioneer. Pérez points out that “Ours was a business where ink was very toxic. We decided to opt for water-based inks and now it is an industry standard. This was the beginning of our search for sustainability.”
HP now works to analyze their total environmental footprint, opting for printing by demand locally to minimize impact and transportation. “More than 50% of fuel used worldwide is destined for logistical processes to transport things from where they are produced to where they are consumed. With production in proximity this improves considerably,” underscores Pastor. The same is true with production in excess: “There are industries, for example, editorial, where more than 30% of books printed end up in the trash. With printing by demand you save the spikes in production,” he adds.
For her part, Sanmartín notes that they “Make the effort to ensure that our solutions last longer and are more robust.” This expert points out that within the HP community there are awareness-building activities that result in more projects with a sustainable environmental impact.
Photo: One of the anticoronavirus door handles HP produced through 3D printing.
Keys to the Future of Printing
HP began printing lines on paper for architects, and now they print all of the signage referring to the coronavirus on floors, in hotels, and for bus stops. This analogy dictates for Sanmartín what we can expect from tomorrow: “The future will be shaped by our clients’ needs. We will keep evolving, like HP has always done over the course of its history in applications that today we can’t even imagine.”
In the eyes of these experts, humans have not left behind the physical nor will they: “There is something about creativity that remains tangible; to create, we always return to paper,” says Sanmartín. To accompany this creativity, the demand will be for printers to be much more flexible and adapt better to work processes. “There will be much smarter and more connected products, with functionalities beyond a support for reading or a product printed on plastic,” adds Pastor. An example is the printing of sensors: tags with temperature sensors that alert if the chain of cold has broken or car parts that incorporate safety and connectivity.
“Personalized printing, by demand, more sustainable, and more safe, that will augment traceability in the entire supply chain. All of this will be achieved through digitalization, specifically with cloud technology,” summarizes Pérez.
Lastly, the answer to question that probably every reader has been asking themselves: no, we won’t all have a 3D printer at home. “When we need it, we’ll send our request online and a service provider will print it. This is the model of the future.”
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