Why HP thinks 3D printing is the future

CEO Q&A: George Brasher, the hardware firm's UK boss, discusses innovating as a big business, disrupting manufacturing and mastering first time management.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 05 Oct 2016

Q: You’ve been at HP for 26 years – you must like it there.

George Brasher, UK MD, HP Inc: I came to HP from MBA school in the US, thinking it was a great place to learn about management and that it would look good on my CV after five years. I’ve stayed for 26 because I’ve had a really interesting, varied career. I’ve lived in nine cities in three countries (this is my second year in the UK) and worked in a bunch of different businesses and functions, from cost accounting and sales to developing new products and management.

Q: In the age of disruption, small is beautiful. Even the biggest firms are wary of threats from nimble, innovative start-ups. How can you compete?

A: My old boss used to say the magic of innovation happens when you combine customer needs and technological capability, and that can happen in a company of any size. But in our markets – printing and computing – scale does matter. It can drive innovation and cost, which is a customer need too.

We have more than 18,000 patents and we’re very proud of that, but innovation is not just in the R&D lab. One trend we’ve seen is customers wanting more control of how they spend their money around their printing supply, so we built a programme where you buy a certain number of pages a month, like a mobile phone plan. To me that’s being innovative around the business model.

Q: HP split in two in 2015, with then CEO Meg Whitman taking the reins of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and Dion Weisler taking command of the printer and computer company you work for, HP Inc. What has that change meant for you?

A: It was a big change. What’s been really neat is it’s allowed us to be really focused and it’s really unleashed innovation. We’ve probably launched more great products in the last 12 months than in any 12 month period when I’ve been a part of HP.

Printing and computing are mature markets, clearly, but there are portions that are growing. Acquiring Samsung’s printer businesses earlier this year was really about getting access to the A3 copier market. There’s also 3D-printing and commercial mobility, which is around vertical applications and three-in-one devices combining phones, desktops and tablets.

Q: Cynics would say the only thing 3D printing has actually manufactured so far is hype...

A: It’s tremendous market, long-term. It’s all about disrupting the $12tn manufacturing sector. But 3D printing is really a misnomer. It’s actually short run manufacturing. To me, the market is in its infancy but it could be very groundbreaking.

For example, one of the components you need to design for a laser printer is the external plastic case. An engineer would design a left side panel and send it off to a manufacturer who would create it and send it back to us. Just think if you could send the same file over to the basement where you have a 3D printer, and they could do it overnight instead of in two weeks.

It would be more cost effective to get some high volume things like screws from a linear production line, but the others we could do ourselves. Our 3D printer will be the first that can print itself.

Q: What’s your top leadership tip?

A: It’s much easier becoming a director or managing director than making the transition to a first time manager. Your muscle memory will tell you that what made you successful as an individual contributor will also make you successful as a manager, but that’s not always true.

You really need to listen to your team all the time. At some point you will have to make tough decisions and that’s clearly an element of being a manager, but that’s the minority not the majority. 

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