Christopher Barnatt

Christopher Barnatt is a futurist, author, videographer and Associate Professor of Strategy and Future Studies at Nottingham University Business School. His 3D printing YouTube videos have been hugely popular and his May 2013 book “3D Printing: The Next Industrial Revolution” has been translated into Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Barnatt is a member of the World Future Society, a contributor to 3DPrinter.net, and sits on the editorial board of Replicator World.

He advises companies, non-profit organizations and government agencies on technology and issues concerning the future. His interests and expertise range from 3D printing to augmented reality, nanotechnology, cloud computing and synthetic biology, among others. Last week, he published “3D Printing: Second Edition”.  In this interview, Christopher Barnatt shares his insights and gives us some direction as to where 3D printing is headed.

After about 3 decades in the shadow, 3D printing has hit the spotlight. Why now?

For a start, both technologies and material variety have improved significantly in recent years. Back in the late 1980s, the first 3D printers could only output brittle resins, and hence their application was limited to prototyping and producing patterns. But today there are hundreds of 3D printing materials, so allowing final molds, end-use parts and even entire products or artworks to be 3D printed in a variety of plastics, but also metals and ceramics. The price of the technology is also falling.

Just as significantly, what has changed is the possibility for end-to-end digital workflows – what a VP from 3D Systems described to me recently as working across entire ‘digital threads’. So today it is not just about the printers, but also the software, scanners, online distributions platforms, and so on. For the first two decades of 3D printing, most computers could not work with 3D object files, and sharing 3D across the Internet was not possible. But today all of the digital support infrastructure to facilitate 3D printing is in place, and this is – along with technology improvements and falling prices – is what is now tugging 3D printing into the mainstream.

You talk to mainstream businesses about the relevance and future of 3D printing. What are their most common questions and how do you answer them?

Companies want to know the relevance of 3D printing to their business and its bottom line. Right now the big opportunities in 3D printing are to use the technology to produce molds and tooling, or certain types of low-volume, complex or customized end-use parts. Today most things that are 3D printed are prototypes, but the general feeling in the 3D printing industry is that by 2020 we will have passed a tipping point, with 3D printing being used more for direct digital manufacturing (DDM) than for prototyping.

Cost savings from using 3D printers to produce molds, patterns, jigs and other tooling can save a lot of time and money. For example, 3D printing sandcast molds using the hardware available from ExOne or Voxeljet may cut production costs by 70 % in some instances. This is not the kind of 3D printing that gets reported, but it is where the big, mainstream industrial opportunities lie.

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You’ve been following the future of 3D printing and other technologies closely for years. What has surprised you the most?

I’m most surprised by the extent to which many large companies still pigeonhole the technology as “rapid prototyping”, so blinding them to wider opportunities. In many ways, 3D printing technology and the possibilities it offers are advancing more rapidly than the mindsets needed to embrace them. I’m also surprised that many companies do not seem to get that they do not have to 3D print an entire product to benefit from direct digital manufacturing.

For example, 3D printing part of a product casing can allow a customized product to be offered at low cost. The simplest example of this is ThatsMyFace.com – they buy $10 action figures, add 3D printed heads modeled from customer photos, and sell the product on for $100. That’s the kind of opportunity that 3D printing represents, and yet many people see 3D printing as “that thing they do in the prototyping department”.

On another level, I have been surprised by the speed of development of new 3D printing materials for personal printers in the last year or so. Filaments like bronzeFill from ColorFab, together with thermoplastic elastomers like NinjaFlex from Fenner Drives, have significantly increased the scope of things that can be 3D printed on lower-cost desktop hardware, which is amazing. Back in October at the TCT Show, I was also impressed to see for myself that it is now possible to 3D print in metal on the desktop thanks to Realizer’s SLM-50.

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HP’s entry into the 3D printing space has attracted a lot of attention even though HP’s first industrial printer will only be commercially available in 2016. How does HP’s announcement impact the 3D printing industry and what does it mean for more established companies like Stratasys and 3D Systems?

HP’s entry into 3D printing is certainly significant in that it brings another large player to market. But we also need to remember that HP has been here before, as they sold re-branded Stratasys hardware in Europe in the early years of 2000. And as you imply, HP’s position is also a bit like China landing on the Moon. It is very likely to happen some day, but it has not actually happened yet. 2016 really is some distance into the future in 3D printing terms, so I don’t think 3D Systems or Stratasys have anything to worry about anytime soon.

Also, the MultiJet Fusion technology showcased by HP a few weeks back will be great for prototyping, and maybe for making some final parts. But it does not look likely to be a consumer technology. And it is not a technology for 3D printing in metal. Hence, while HP is entering an expanding marketplace, it is also one in which the proportion of the market using the kind of technology they are introducing is falling. Now if the company had announced a new direct metal 3D printing technology, that really would have been game changing.

Your new book on 3D printing has just come out. What makes it different from your first book on 3D printing? Why was an update necessary?

So much has changed since the first edition came out in May 2013! The book is a major update – with about 70 % of the content new or majorly re-written – to reflect new technologies and big changes in the 3D printing industry. For example, in May 2013 there were only five publicly traded 3D printer manufactures. In November 2014 there are ten – even excluding HP (not here yet) and Bosch/Dremel (who are now selling re-branded hardware from Chinese manufacturer Flash Forge 3D Technology).

Personal 3D scanning has also come of age, while both Stratasys and 3D Systems have new and very impressive color technologies on the market. And we are seeing exciting developments with composite materials. So while the book has the same basic structure as before, a lot needed to be changed to keep things up-to-date.

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It seems like there are two main avenues where 3D printing is developing now – the home “maker” market and the industrial market. Will they finally converge and create an economy where manufacturing is really distributed?

I don’t think they will converge. Yes, by 2020 we are likely to see a million personal 3D printers sold every year. But personal printing will I think still only be around 10 % of the total 3D printing market – and we need to remember that many personal 3D printers are actually sold to companies. This is not to say that the Maker community is not important and growing. The entry of the $30billion-turnover Kinpo Group (in the guise of XYZprinting) into this market in 2014 signals that.

But distributed manufacturing – and most personal printing – will I think take place in factories, bureaus and other commercial facilities for a long time to come. Where we will see convergence is in the future merger of 3D printing with other local digital manufacturing technologies, and most notably synthetic biology and nanotechnology. And I devote most of chapter 7 to that!

You’ve illustrated that there are four curves that show the different adoption timelines of 3D printing for 4 different uses: Rapid prototyping, molds and tooling, digital manufacturing and personal fabrication. Where do you see the greatest potential in the short- and medium term and what will eventually be the biggest market?

Today, as I’ve said, the biggest market is rapid prototyping. All markets will grow – so rapid prototyping may be two or three times bigger by decade’s end – but by 2020 the far bigger market will be the production of molds and tooling. By 2025, it will probably be the manufacture of end-use parts or entire final products. Personal fabrication will, as I’ve said, be big, but not the driver of the industry.

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In which areas of the economy will 3D printing have the greatest impact?

It will be in those parts of the economy that generate their profits from high-value, customized or personalized products. So today this means aerospace, and things like jewelry making, customized artworks and designer consumer goods. Oh and in the medical sector – including digital dentistry, and in time the bioprinting of human tissues for drug testing and transplantation. By 2020, medical 3D printing alone is likely to be a billion dollar industry.

Companies like Airbus, Boeing, Siemens, GE, Ford and, most recently, Alcoa, are venturing into the 3D printing space for turbines, jet engine parts and other industrial goods. How long do you think will it take before additive manufacturing is actually used for production?

It already is – I’ve a whole chapter on companies now 3D printing end-use parts of final products, and ranging from artworks to jewelry, and toys to designer goods. If you want a few hundred thermoplastic components and don’t have a mold, 3D printing is already the most cost effective means of production. Earlier this year SpaceX successfully launched one of its Falcon 9 rockets with a 3D printed main oxidizer valve in one of the engines. Meanwhile many older airliners already have several 3D printed parts fitted where traditional replacements were not available.

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Several people are trying to make filament out of recycled plastic – the most common is traditional recycled plastic from PET bottles, the use of ocean plastic or plastic from garbage dumps seems to be in a more experimental stage. Do you think using recycled plastic for filament has a chance to become mainstream?

Probably – what Tyler McNaney kickstarted with Filabot is very cool. But I also think that we will start to find other ways to make 3D printing more sustainable – fermenting bioplastic filaments using synthetic biology, for example.

What are other ways in which 3D printing can have a positive impact on the environment and the use of resources?

Because 3D printing is additive, it allows significant material savings. For example, earlier this year Airbus reported that 3D printing final aerospace parts can result in up to 90 % material and energy savings. 3D printed parts can also be designed to use less material, while maintaining or improving on required physical properties. For example, a 3D printed house – like those made by WinSun earlier this year – can have insulation gaps in their concrete walls.

3D printing will also allow local manufacturing on demand, so saving on resources diverted into transportation and storage. Finally, 3D printing will allow us to keep old things longer, as it will allow spare parts to be printed to facilitate repair. Today, most things spend most of their time in pre-purchase storage or landfill. 3D printing should help them to spend more time in the useful middle!

Many experts see great opportunities for 3D printing in the medical field – for medical devices as well as in the area of bioprinting, where new transplant organs may come out of a 3D printer. Do you agree with this assessment? When do you think will hospitals be able to print organs for use in real patients?

The first commercial bioprinted products – tissue samples to speed drug testing from Organovo – are probably now less than a year from commercial application. My guess is that we will see human trails of simple bioprinted grafts in the first half of the 2020s, and maybe more complex organs like kidneys put into people around 2020.

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The last chapter in your book is titled “Brave New World?”, and promises to “separate probable fact from science fiction to predict the real 3D printing future” – what are the most common myths and what the most probable predictions in 3D printing?

The biggest myths are that you can only 3D print in plastics, that 3D printing is just rapid prototyping, and that most future personal fabrication will take place at home. In reality, 3D printing is – at least medium-term – going to be about finding new ways to use traditional manufacturing processes more effectively (for example by 3D printing molds and other tooling), and the manufacture of customized and/or high-value products that cannot be made cost-effectively or at all by other means.

My own view is that, in ten years, about 20 % of products will be in whole or part 3D printed, with far more things reliant on 3D printed tooling. In ten years, millions of people will own a 3D printer. But most 3D printed products will come out of commercial facilities – hopefully fairly local ones – and a great many 3D printed items will be spare parts.

I also think that by the time 3D printing becomes truly mainstream, it will have converged so significantly with other technologies that we will have ceased to call it 3D printing. Yes, there will be a 3D Printing Revolution. But more significant will be the Local Digital Manufacturing (LDM) Revolution of which 3D printing will form the first part.

Thank you very much for the interview.