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Interview with futurist Christopher Barnatt on his book '3D Printing: Second Edition'

Reprint with Permission from 3ders.org

Interview with futurist Christopher Barnatt on his book '3D Printing: Second Edition'

Christopher Barnatt is a well-known 3D printing academic, videographer and pundit. His 3D printing YouTube videos have received about 4.5 million views, while his May 2013 book "3D Printing: The Next Industrial Revolution" has proved popular around the world and has been translated into Chinese, Japanese and Korean.

3Ders: So Chris tell us, has the book changed very much? Have you just updated where necessary, or is this fundamentally a new book?

Chris Barnatt: It is a major update, reflecting the speed of change in the 3D printing industry over the past 18 months. About half of the chapters have been written again from scratch, with the remainder significantly updated. I've not changed things for the sake of it, but I wanted try and deliver a definitive and really up-to-date guide to every 3D printing technology and what is going on in the 3D printing industry, and hence a lot of updating was required! I've also restructured things -- for example using the generic ASTM categories in the technologies chapter. And there is more industry analysis throughout to try to help people get to grips with where 3D printing in headed.

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3Ders: So can you give us an example of that?

Chris Barnatt: Well, for a start, in the first chapter -- which you can download for free here -- I break 3D printing down into its four distinct market segments of rapid prototyping, the production of molds and other tooling, the direct digital manufacture of final products or components, and personal fabrication. All of these markets present their own opportunities and challenges, and they are all growing at different rates. As I'm sure you know, right now most things that are 3D printed by companies are prototypes. But, having spoken to people across the 3D printing industry, it seems pretty clear that by the end of the decade we will have passed a tipping point, with most 3D printed items being tooling, end-use components, or even entire final products. This is very exciting, but also a presents the industry with a difficult transition. For nearly 30 years 3D printing companies have been operating in the fairly niche market sector of rapid prototyping. Yet fairly soon they will be competing as the vendors of an increasingly mainstream manufacturing technology.

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3Ders: And on top of that, personal 3D printing is changing significantly too.

Chris Barnatt: Indeed! Only a few years back, most people who owned their own printer had to build it themselves. But now there well over 100 personal models that anybody can just buy and start printing with. New entrants like ZXYprinting, with their Da Vinci hardware starting from $500, will in particular be really interesting to watch. XYZprinting is actually part of the Taiwanese Kinpo Group, which has a turnover of about $30 billion, or ten times larger than the entire 3D printing industry. At the moment they are a very small 3D printing industry player, but their experience and turnover in global consumer electronics means that they have the potential to take market share in a manner not necessarily available to existing pure-play 3D printing pioneers.

3Ders: And they are far from the only new entrant. Recently we've seen both Dremel and HP entering the market. Not to mention several stock market flotations in 2014.

Chris Barnatt: Yes, Dremel's launch of its 3D Idea Builder personal 3D printer is interesting, even if it is a re-branded Dreamer model from Chinese manufacturer Flash Forge. HP's very recent re-entry into 3D printing (they sold re-branded Stratasys hardware in Europe at the start of this decade) is also fascinating, and kept me on my toes as the very last new content to go into the book!

3Ders: Their new Multi Jet Fusion' technology does appear to be ground breaking, offering really robust, full-colour printing. And I see that its announcement drove down the share price of other 3D major 3D printer manufacturers.

Chris Barnatt: Yes, though HP will not have product for general sale until 2016, so I don't think that they are a real threat to 3D Systems or Stratasys, at least not in the short- or medium-term. 2014 has also been a really good year for new technology innovations from the existing big players, such as the Objet500 Connex3 from Stratasys offering colour, multi-material printing, and the ProJet 4500 from 3D Systems with its full-colour printing of really nice plastic objects. It is also great to see various forms of powder bed fusion (laser sintering and laser melting) arriving, and due to arrive, on the desktop. For me personally, seeing the Realizer SLM-50 3D printing metal on the desktop was a wonderful sight to behold at TCT last month. It is also great to witness so many new materials -- such as bronzeFill and copperFill from ColorFab, and NinjaFlex from Fenner Drives -- becoming available for consumers to 3D print on lower-end hardware. Not to mention recent developments in fiber-reinforced filaments.

3Ders: And filaments including carbon nanotubes and graphene too. A few weeks back, Graphene 3D Lab announced that it had managed to 3D print all of the components required to make a graphene battery.

Chris Barnatt: Yes, and I've got quite a bit about 3D printing and nanotechnology in the book, and also synthetic biology! In fact, the "3D Printing and Sustainability" chapter from last time has been replaced with a new one called "3D Printing in Context". This is about how 3D printing, synthetic biology and nanotechnology are likely to converge to facilitate new forms of local digital manufacturing, or 'LDM'. One day we may even see bioprinting-style developments feed back into 'traditional' manufacturing. For example, with organic filaments and feedstocks being 3D printed that can be grown or fermented locally, and which may even complete the fabrication of a part of product after printout.

3Ders: That sounds some way into the future?

Chris Barnatt: Definitely -- though as you've said, Graphene 3D Lab are doing cool things with nanocomposite filaments already. Though I don't want to give the impression that the second edition of book is too future focused. Just as in the first edition, the majority of the content is about current technologies, current public and private market players, pioneers of digital manufacturing, and things like that. The book is used as a textbook in some colleges, and they want the hard facts! Even so, as the 3D printing industry develops, I think it's really important that it does not become too inward looking. 3D printing is far from the only technology that will enable the Next Industrial Revolution by allowing us to create more with less at the local level. And so, while trying to remain as grounded as possible, I do try and reflect that.

3Ders: And will there be a third edition?

Chris Barnatt: If the second edition does as well as the first one, then almost certainly I'll do another in early 2016. But I'm not counting my chickens. Right now, I'm just beginning work on a book that looks at a far wider range of future technologies and undertaking. 3D printing is there -- but so too are robots, asteroid mining, transhumanism and all kinds of stuff.

3Ders: But back with this book, are you positive about where the 3D printing industry is headed?

Chris Barnatt: Yes, if less positive about how it is perceived and portrayed. Still the mass media only really focus on people in the future 3D printing things at home, and then they dismiss this possible future because 'not everything is made of plastic'. And yet, even in five or ten years time, most 3D printing is likely to remain industrial. So while not that long from now, many of us will own wholly or partly-3D-printed products, most of them will be fabricated in a factory or a bureau, not on a kitchen table or in a Maker's den. That's not to deny that probably millions of people will own a 3D printer by 2020. But even the sale of a million 3D printers a year by the end of the decade -- and that's a realistic prediction -- will by then be worth less than a billion dollars, and hence no more than about 10 percent of total 3D printing industry revenues by decade's end. And yet the popular press -- and even many investors -- really still don't seem to get that it is industrial 3D printing that is set to drive the industry forward, not domestic personal fabrication.

As our interview ended, I asked Chris to briefly sum up "3D Printing: Second Edition". As he replied "its a straight-forward book about 3D printing technologies, the 3D printing industry, and digital manufacturing opportunities. Not that any of these are actually straight-forward at all!"

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Christopher Barnatt runs ExplainingTheFuture.com, as well as being Associate Professor of Strategy & Future Studies in Nottingham Univerisity Business School, UK.

Posted in 3D Printing Technology

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