Christopher Barnatt is a futurist, videographer and Associate Professor of Strategy & Future Studies in Nottingham University Business School. He is widely known in the 3D printing industry and engages widely with the media, with recent contributions to BBC News, The Times, The Guardian and numerous radio stations. Christopher is the author of ExplainingTheFuture.com, ExplainingComputers.com and their associated YouTube channels. To date he has written ten books on future studies and computing.
3D Printing: Second Edition (published November 6, 2014) is a major update of the highly popular3D Printing: The Next Industrial Revolution. The book provides an extensive overview of all 3D printing technologies, together with a detailed analysis of the 3D printing industry, and broader predictions for future digital manufacturing. The book features over one hundred interviews, examples and illustrations, and is a valuable resource for all enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, designers, investors and students who want to remain up-to-date with the Next Industrial Revolution.
GA: Congratulations on your most recent book, 3D Printing: Second Edition. I bought my copy at Amazon and eagerly await its arrival. What are some of the new chapters and material that readers will find in this edition?
CB: The book is a major update of my first 3D printing book from May 2013, with about 70 per cent of the content new or re-written. Plus the book is longer! I’ve kept the same basic structure – so there are chapters on 3D printing technologies, the 3D printing industry, direct digital manufacturing and so on — but so much has changed over the past 18 months that all of these needed a lot of new input to be brought right up to date. Throughout, the book has more industry analysis this time around, which begins in the very first chapter. I’ve also replaced a previous chapter on “3D Printing and Sustainability” with one called “3D Printing in Context”. This looks at the broader world in which 3D printing is increasingly finding a home, with a major focus on local digital manufacturing (LDM). On top of these changes there are new interviews, lots of new images, and a more extensive glossary and industry directory, with the latter being more global in its coverage this time.
GA: It’s been about 18 months since your first book on 3D printing was published. What are a few of the positive changes/advances you’ve seen in the industry since then?
CB: In terms of the industry, and as reflected on 3DprintingStocks.com, there are now more publicly traded players, and not just pure-plays. I think the entry of Kinpo Group – in the guise of XYZ Printing – is a very positive and interesting development. Granted, HP has announced its intention to start selling 3D printers by 2016, and Bosch/Dremel is now selling hardware made for them by Chinese manufacturer Flash Forge 3D Technology. But Kinpo Group is a well-established consumer electronics manufacturer – with a turnover of about $30bn – that is actually manufacturing and selling personal 3D printers, and very aggressively priced ones at that.
More broadly, since the launch of the first book, 3D printing has secured its place in the public psyche. Most people still don’t know a great about 3D printing, but the majority have at least heard of it. We’ve also got 3D printers for sale in some traditional stores, and an increasing number of bureaus offering 3D printing services. Some of these are even being run by large logistics organizations, including UPS in the United States, La Poste in France, and SingPost in Singapore. The fact that such companies are taking a proactive interest in 3D printing is I think very significant. As the manager of a one 3D printer manufacturer said to me only this afternoon, both the general public and companies really do now realize that “3D printing is here and it is not going to go away”. So, over the last 18 months, the big question people are asking has changed from “what is 3D printing?” to “what are the implications of 3D printing?”. And that is a quite a shift in such a short period of time.
GA: The second chapter of this edition is titled: “3D Printing Technologies — detailing every technology on the market or in the lab”.
What do you see as some of the more interesting/exciting technologies currently under development?
CB: In many ways, some of the most interesting developments are initiatives to increase access to existing technologies by driving down the price and/or bringing them to the desktop. For example, in the last few years we’re seen stereolithography arrive on the desktop for a few thousand dollars with printers like the Form1+ from FormLabs – something almost unimaginable not that many years ago.
This year we’ve also got direct metal powder printing on the desktop with the SLM-50 from Realizer, and we should see laser sintering in nylon powders as a low-cost desktop technology very soon. Making tried-and-tested technologies commercial for a larger market is very challenging, but nevertheless it is starting to happen.
In the past 18 months, we’ve also seen an expanded range of material extrusion filaments become available for personal 3D printing. Not least we now have bronzeFill and copperFill from ColorFab. These are composites of PLA and PHA mixed with a metal powder, and allow really solid things to printed on a wide range of desktop hardware, and then polished up to look and feel amazing. We’ve also now got several thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) filaments available, so allowing the desktop printout of flexible, elastic objects. And then there are filaments that combine carbon nanotubes with a plastic to create conductive, easily-extrudable materials.
Linked to the above, the development of desktop material extrusion printers – like the Mark One from MarkForged – that can 3D embed a continuous carbon fiber or Kevlar reinforcement strand into a thermoplastic printout is very significant, as it allows objects to be created that are stiffer than aluminum. As 3DprintingStocks.com has been reporting, Graphene 3D Lab are also making great progress with nanocomposite filaments that incorporate graphene into a plastic material. They recently even managed to 3D print the components required for a graphene battery (see video). What all of this means is that, increasingly, it will be possible for individual makers to 3D print a very wide range of parts on the desktop. In turn, such parts will be able to be assembled into useful stuff. For example, I recently saw some shoes 3D printed using bronzeFill for the bulk of the shoe, and the Ninjaflex TPE for the uppers. This allowed a wearable product to be 3D printed that would have been impossible on a consumer 3D printer a year ago. And to me that represents real progress.
The way in which major players are managing to push forward existing technology has also I think been very significant in 2014. Most notably, we’ve seen Stratasys deliver colour multimaterial PolyJet 3D printing with their Objet500 Connex3.
Meanwhile 3D Systems have introduced a ColorJet binder jetting printer – the ProJet 4500 — that can produce full-colour, semi-rigid plastic objects that require no post-processing. ExOne have also introduced the nickel alloy Inconel 625 as a new build material for their binder jetting direct metal 3D printing process. Given that this process has for years been limited to bronze, or to stainless steel and bronze, this could have major implications in sectors like aerospace.
When it comes to completely new technologies, I have been surprised by how many I have had to add in to the new book! They include ‘scan, spin and selectively photocure’ (3SP), lithography-based ceramic manufacture, Moving DLP, and the MultiJet Fusion process recently announced by HP. To try and keen everything in order, in the new book I’ve structured the expanded technologies chapter under the seven generic ASTM technology categories, which I hope makes things easier to navigate. I really hope that, in the next 18 months, the 3D printing industry starts to agree on some standard terminology and to increasingly apply it.
GA: What are some of the challenges that need to be met for consumer grade 3D printers to become ubiquitous in our lives? Likewise, what are some of the challenges facing industrial 3D printing?
CB: Personal 3D printers needs to get cheaper and more useful, and there are also strong signs that this is happening. Not that many years ago, most people who owned a personal 3D printer had built it themselves from an open source design. But now there are well over 100 pre-assembled models that arrive in a box pretty much ready-to-print, and at increasingly competitive prices. Still “personal 3D printers” are classed as those costing $5,000 or less, and it think it would be useful instead start talking about “consumer 3D printers”, costing up to $1,500, and “prosumer 3D printers”, priced from $1,500 to $5,000, as these will be in increasingly different markets.
Beyond the hardware, I think that the driver of domestic personal printing will be content availability. Though with over 500,000 objects now available for download from object sharing websites like Thingiverse and MyMiniFactory, it is no longer the case that people will have to design their own stuff. We’ve also recently seen some great consumer 3D scanners come to market, and this will additionally help to create a demand for printers themselves. This all said, I think it will be a very long time indeed before most homes have a 3D printer. Rather, 3D printing bureau services – equipped with professional hardware across the entire 3D printing technology range – will service people’s 3D printing requirements most of the time. Yes, an increasing number of individual makers will own and cherish a 3D printer. But even if we hit the fairly widely predicted figure of a million personal 3D printers being sold a year by 2020, this I think will not be that significant a proportion of total 3D printing industry revenues. In fact, by 2020, a million personal 3D printers a year will deliver less than a billion dollars in revenue – which will probably be less than 10 per cent of total 3D printing industry revenues by that point in time. So the very common idea that it will be personal 3D printing that drives forward the 3D Printing Revolution is, I think, somewhat flawed. Yes, personal 3D printing is going to be a big market. But I suspect that, even decades out, it will continue to be dwarfed by the industrial side of the market.
On the industrial side, I think that challenge is more to open company’s eyes to what is already possible. Right now many firms could save a great deal of money by starting to use 3D printers to produce molds, patterns, jigs and other production tooling. Opportunities to customized products by simply adding one or two 3D printed components are now very significant, and the hardware to achieve this is available, even if it will continue to improve. So the business challenge is I think already one of changing mindsets as much as creating new technologies.
GA: What trends currently in motion do you predict could be game-changing for the 3D printing industry?
CB: The biggest change in the medium-term is going to be transition of 3D printing from something that is mainly used for prototyping to something that is mainly used for manufacturing. Right now, as we all know, 3D printing is a rapid prototyping technology that is sometimes used to make end-use parts or a few final products. But by 2020, the scales will have tipped, and 3D printing will have become a manufacturing technology that will sometimes also be used for rapid prototyping. This will start to blur the lines between prototyping and final production. But far more significantly, it will also require major changes in how 3D printing is perceived and marketed.
For the best part of 30 years, 3D printer manufacturers have operated in the pretty niche market sector of rapid prototyping. But fairly soon their business will be the production of mainstream manufacturing technology, and that is a somewhat different beast to tame with different commercial demands. In a similar vein, the manufacturers of personal 3D printers have grown up servicing the needs of Maker enthusiasts, and yet for the market to grow they will need to learn to meet the far tougher demands of mainstream consumers. Walk around a 3D printing tradeshow today and it is rather obvious that eight per cent of exhibitors do not really have marketing on their minds. But the time I write the third and fourth editions of my 3D printing book, I think the companies that dominate 3D printing will be those that have best learnt to how operate in their new mass markets, rather than necessarily those with the best technologies. Just look at Microsoft in computing – it got the marketing right early on, not really the technology. But in doing so it stole the market for decades. Well at least until now!
More broadly, I would point to two other trends. In the short term, I think we are already witness to a broadening of focus away from 3D printers, and toward the management and operation of end-to-end digital workflows that span design to end product production and even delivery. As Adobe’s technology futurist, Jordan Brandt, recently put it, ‘the hardware, software and materials are all combing’. It will not be the companies who make or buy the best 3D printers that will dominate the future 3D printing marketplace, but those who learn how to seamlessly manage concept-to-delivery digital threads. For example, for those companies that want to deliver successful 3D printed customized products, the key thing will be to develop the best interface (often online) between the customer and the business, and then to put in place the best logistics chain to deliver a printout to their door.
In the longer term, I think that the real driver of 3D printing will be the way in which it will enable the rise of local digital manufacturing (LDM) as a more sustainable alternative to the current mantra of mass globalization. Today, most things that are manufactured spend most of their lives in pre-sales storage, and then in landfill after they have been thrown away. And clearly this makes no sense either environmentally or economically. In contrast, future local digital manufacturing offers the hope of being able to make only those things that people actually want, and really close to where people actually want them. In time – and as I discuss in some detail in the book – we will I think therefore see the rise of many different LDM technologies. These will include 3D printing, but also things like synthetic biology and nanotechnology. 3D printing is an amazing development that is really going places. But is it also not the only rising technology that will drive the Next Industrial Revolution, and I think it is really important that everybody from educators to investors to business leaders learns to recognize this fact. Indeed, by the time that 3D printers are able to manufacture even 20 or 25 per cent of the products that clutter our lives, I believe they will have converged so significantly with other technologies that the term ‘3D printing’ will have disappeared from common use. And so by then I will need a different title for the tenth edition of my book!
Note to subscribers: I thoroughly enjoyed the first book Chris authored on 3D printing and I highly recommend the second edition, available at Amazon.com.
Readers may also want to check out Christopher’s extensive repository of information on all things 3D printing on his web site.
You can follow Chris on twitter: @ChrisBarnatt
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