Christopher BarnattChristopher Barnatt, the British futurist, scholar, videographer, and author of  3D Printing: The Next Industrial Revolution  provides an in-depth (and fascinating!) discussion about the future trends, business opportunities, technologies, and adoption curves in the 3D printing industry.



Chris Barnatt’s latest video, “3D Printing: The Business Opportunities” (released 10/6/2013) is a must watch prior to his discussion below, which expands on the themes of the video in greater detail.

(Should the video player above not work in your browser, here is the link to YouTube.)


christopher barnatt

Gary Anderson:  Thank you Chris for sharing your knowledge and expertise on 3D printing with us.  Can you tell me why you made this particular video, and the message behind it?

Christopher Barnatt
Christopher Barnatt:  I made the video to pull together some of the material on 3D printing that I've been presenting to a wide range of companies recently. 3D printing remains a somewhat controversial topic -- with some people claiming that it will bring down capitalism by putting the means of production into the hands of the majority -- while others believe it to be over-hyped.

Personally, I'm not convinced about the "bringing down capitalism" possibility, and not least because there is an extremely long way to go before 3D printers can directly output most kinds of final product. Most of the things in our homes and companies are make of multiple materials, and have to be assembled from many parts.  And multiple materials are still very hard to 3D print, while those 3D printing evangelists currently espousing the end of capitalism tend to ignore the whole issue of assembly. Yes consumer-grade 3D printers can already produce some nice plastic stuff, and even interlocking parts. Even so, the ability of a home enthusiast to reproduce a plastic toy like one found in a cereal packet is not in danger of destroying the way modern economic systems function!

This important point made, 3D printing is a revolutionary set of technologies. It does, however, already often suffer from being portrayed as a single development with a single area of business application. Over the coming decades, 3D printing will, I think, be revolutionary in at least four different (if linked) ways, and this is what I have tried to stress in the video, and in particular by presenting my diagram of four 3D printing adoption curves.


Gary Anderson: Can you expand on the adoption curves you see in the 3D printing space?

Christopher Barnatt
Christopher Barnatt: Certainly Gary!  The curves are inevitably a pictorial best guess, and are largely intended as a means of promoting debate. This said, the starting point of each curve on the time axis is based in solid fact, as we can say with certainly that the use of 3D printing in rapid prototyping started in the second half of the 1980s following the launch of the first stereolithographic 3D printer from 3D Systems in 1986. This was followed by the launch of the first material extrusion (FDM) printer from Stratasys in 1992, and rapidly lead at least some pioneers to start producing molds or other elements of production tooling using the technology in the early-to-mid 1990s. The very first 3D printed goods (such as tiny sculptures and jewelry from Bathsheba Grossman) then arrived on the market from the very late 1990s onwards. Personal fabrication then finally started to become a possibility with the arrival of the open source RepRap 3D printer in 2006.

christopher Barnatt adoption curves

As these different starting points hopefully highlight, 3D printing is not a single technology with a single area of business application, and it is very important for actual and potential investors to really understand this. Not least this is because the four areas of 3D printing application I have highlighted -- rapid prototyping, the production of molds and tooling, direct digital manufacturing, and personal fabrication--are likely to develop and mature at very different rates and in somewhat different ways.

If, for example, we consider rapid prototyping, then this is no longer a remotely novel area of 3D printing application. However, we may expect the 3D printout of rapid prototypes to be radically transformed in the next few years due to the arrival of much lower cost hardware. Printers like the Form1 from FormLabs, and indeed the CubeX range from 3D Systems, or the MakerBot Replicator II from Stratasys -- will increasingly allow reasonable quality 3D printing to escape engineering departments and RP labs, and to be conducted on many desks. The key issue in the next decade will therefore not be whether companies are using 3D printing for rapid prototyping, but where in their business and to what extent.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, computing escaped from the data centre to become a mainstream activity in many companies, with non-technical people able to have and use a computer on their desk, and the same opportunity is just starting to exist in 3D printing. We should therefore expect the use of 3D printing in rapid prototyping to fairly rapidly both explode and the mature in the next decade or so. For this reason, in the diagram I suggest that it will reach saturation around 2025--though as you will also see from the 50% label on the Y-axis, I do not suggest that all rapid prototypes will ever be 3D printed.  This is also something we need to more generally remember. 3D printing will take its place alongside other prototyping and wider production technologies; it will always be a compliment to what we do now, not a complete substitute. Even after the first Industrial Revolution many previous craft skills and activitives survived as they do to this day.

Turning to the other curves, I think the most critical is the one labeled "molds and tooling". This highlights the potential to employ 3D printers to create not final products, but the things that final products are made from. The additive manufacture of molds, patterns, cores and other tooling has been going on to some extent for some time-- for example in the manufacture of some dental appliances, shoe soles and jewelry -- but I think this will be far more readily exploited in the next few decades. Not least the potential to use 3D printers to produce patternless sand casts is huge.

For thousands of years we have been making metal objects by creating patterns (often in wood), packing sand around them, removing the pattern, and pouring in molten metal. But some industrial 3D printers can now print sand casts without having to make a pattern first, much less remove it from a mold. This will increasingly allow more complex geometries to be cast, as well as reducing production costs and increasing quality.

Moving along, direct digital manufacture has a promising future in certain currently niche marketplaces. Basically, it will become increasingly common to 3D print final products (or parts thereof) when the item being sold is physically small, of high value, and customized. An excellent example is spectacle manufacture, such as those glasses already being 3D printed by Protos Eyewear. Right now they are "only" 3D printing custom spectacle frames. This said, a company called LUXeXcel in Holland has developed an optical 3D printing technology that allows it to 3D print working lenses that do not require polishing after printout. Earlier this year they even managed to test 3D print a pair of prescription spectacles, with both the frame and the lenses combined in a single print!

Finally in my adoption curves diagram I include personal fabrication, and here the most critical thing I am signalling is that personal fabrication is the least mature 3D printing market right now, and the one that will develop most slowly. OK, the Cube from 3D Systems and other relatively-low-cost thermoplastic 3D printers are now being stocked in an increasing number of stores. They are also amazing devices, great fun, and may start a craze. But machines like these are not, as I've already stressed, going to transform how most things are made. There are, after all only so many small, single material plastic items that most people need! My strong suspicion is therefore that for many years to come most personal fabrication will involve people making use of in-store 3D printing services or online bureau -- buying things from Shapeways or or wherever -- rather than owning a printer and fabricating personally on that. Yes, the Maker Movement will grow and some enthusiasts will have a 3D printer in their garage or home office. But these will generally be the same people who already have a home workshop. Or in other words, I think that most domestic 3D printers will be bought as additional, complimentary tools by those people who are making or mending things already.


Gary Anderson:  Can you add some color to what technologies in 3D printing you believe offer the most promise going forward?

Christopher Barnatt

Christopher Barnatt:  Indeed! Very much linked to what I've already said, I think that using binder jetting to 3D print sand cast molds and cores is a very important development. It may be something that end consumers will never see, but is will prove revolutionary in terms of cost, quality and time for many manufacturers. We therefore need to play close attention to the work of companies like ExOne and Voxeljet. The latter, as you may know, alreadyhas a printer (the VX4000) that can print sand molds 4m x 2m x 1m in size. It is therefore perhaps not that surprising that they have recently announced an IPO on the US market.

The sheet lamination technology from MCor -- where they create color 3D objects by spraying ink onto layers of cut and adhered copier paper – may also I think attract a lot of interest in the next few years, especially as an in-store personal fabrication technology in outlets including Staples. Today we visit a copyshop to get xeroxed documents; soon we will be able to obtain color paper models 3D printed from a USB key or Dropbox! Though in the longer term I think that this will prove to be a transitory technology, with many companies having entered and left the sheet lamination 3D printing marketplace over the past few decades.

In terms of producing customized final products (or bits of things, like the 3D printed cleat on Nike's latest Valor Laser football boot), then at present laser sintering seems to be the way to go. I've interviewed quite a lot of companies who are 3D printing final products (or using bureaus to 3D print them for their customers) and most are laser sintering their wares. This said, if the price can some down, material jetting technologies (like the PolyJet printers from Objet/Stratasys) do produce very high quality results and in multiple materials.

3D printing in living, human cells -- as being developed by Organovo, the Wake Forrest Institute and others -- also has massive potential in healthcare. I did, in fact, consider having a separate bioprinting curve in my diagram, though chose to leave it as a part of future digital manufacture!

According to a September 2013 report from Morgan Stanley, approaching 40 per cent of the direct digital manufacturing marketplace (at least in terms of patent applications) is currently medical, so this really is not an area to ignore. Not all of this medical 3D printing involves bioprinting.  But what the whole sector of medically-directed inorganic and organic 3D printing will benefit from is an ageing population, coupled with the fact that 3D printed healthcare products that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars will still be very good value for money and hence in great demand. As I've said, in the short-and-medium term, the greatest opportunities in direct digital manufacturing are for physically small, high value and customized goods, and a great many current and potential-future medical products fit that profile very nicely.


Christopher Barnatt

Christopher Barnatt is a futurist, videographer and Associate Professor of Computing and Future Studies in Nottingham University Business School. He has written eight previous books and numerous articles on future studies and computing, appears regularly in the media, and runs the websites, and their associated YouTube channels.  You can follow him at

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