Nov 28, 2016 | By Anja
In May 2013, futurist Christopher Barnatt published a book called 3D Printing: The Next Industrial Revolution. This proved popular, and was followed by a second edition in November 2014, as well as translations into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Thai. Now, in November 2016, a third edition of the book has been published, so we thought we’d catch up with Chris for his latest take on where things are headed in the 3D printing world.
3Ders: So Chris, here we again with another edition of your 3D printing book. Is this another significant update?
Chris: Yes, here we are again! And, as last time, it is a very major update. I did wonder quite how much I would need to change this time around. But there was a lot to cover, not only in terms of new technologies and applications, but also changes in the 3D printing industry.
3Ders: Things have certainly moved on since 2014, with several new companies entering the market.
Chris: Very much so. Back in 2014 3D printing was still dominated by the large pure-play manufacturers, and 3D printing stocks were rather buoyant. But fast-forward to today, and the fortunes of Stratasys and 3D Systems—at least financially—have stalled. Meanwhile some large, diversified manufacturers are having a significant impact. Personally I find it fascinating how 3D Systems has left the low-end desktop 3D printer market, while Kinpo’s XYZprinting has risen to sell more personal 3D printers—and indeed more 3D printers in total—than any other company. In the industrial marketplace, HP, Ricoh, Prodways, and GE are clearly also set to play a major role, with Canon, Toshiba and others hovering in the wings. Just as in personal computing, it may have been start-up, pure-play organizations who got the ball rolling with a new technology and a new industry. But fairly soon I am certain that it will be large, traditional manufacturers that will dominate both personal and industrial 3D printing.
3Ders: It seems the market is growing more confident today.
Chris: I agree. There is no doubt that, around 2012 and 2013, 3D printing became mired in hype. It therefore has to be very significant that so many large, traditional manufacturing organizations have decided to invest in 3D printing since that time.
3Ders: GE’s recent purchase of Arcam and Concept Laser would appear to be a testament to that.
Chris: It is, although I remember being at TCT a few weeks after GE made its initial offer for Arcam and SLM Solutions, and all the talk was of ‘GE is buying Arcam and SLM Solutions.' And I kept saying ‘no, GE has announced its intent to do this, but that does not mean it will actually happen, it really is not a done deal yet.' And as we know, in the case of SLM Solutions, the purchase did not go ahead due to the actions of an activist investor. I mention this because I think a lot of people in 3D printing are still far more technology savvy than business savvy, and that is why the next phase of the 3D Printing Revolution will need to be driven forward by large, traditional manufacturers who will think business first. A lot of the progress to me made in the industry really is not technological.
3Ders: You mentioned the term ‘The 3D Printing Revolution’ there. Are you are still comfortable using that?
Chris: I am! And I know it is contentious. But I continue to believe that what is happening in additive manufacturing is going to be part of a revolution in how some—but by no means all—future products are made, either directly or indirectly. The idea that many people will 3D print their own stuff at home, which captured the imagination of the popular press a few years ago, is clearly ludicrous. But I do think there is a danger that, in the wake of the hype, we risk becoming too cautious in our predictions and expectations for what 3D printing has to offer, and just how transformative it is going to be.
One of the things that really interested me in revising the book was the number of new examples of direct digital manufacturing there were to include. Granted, the 3D printout of final metal and plastic parts remains limited to certain industries, such as aviation and the medical sector, but the additive manufacturing of final product parts is now definitely starting to take hold, and has advanced considerably since the second edition of my book was published only two years ago.
3Ders: And what else do you think has radically changed, if anything?
Chris: 3D printing technology, for sure. For a start, it is great to see more technologies on the desktop, such as Daylight Polymer Printing (DPP) from PhotoCentric, and the sub-$10,000 plastic laser sintering hardware from Sinterit and Sintratec. In the past few years there has also been a major move industrially into hybrid technology solutions, with direct-metal powder bed fusion and directed energy deposition processes integrated into machines that also offer CNC milling. Xjet’s NanoParticle Jetting—effectively the inkjet printing of metal parts—is clearly also a game changer, as may be the mix of stereolithography and robotics included in the developmental ‘Figure 4’ hardware from 3D Systems.
Very much the smart focus today is on 3D printing as part of a hybrid manufacturing solution. There are certain things that 3D printing is really good at, and certain things where it falls short of other manufacturing methods. And what we need to do now, across the industry, is to sharpen our focus on where the use of 3D printing will add the most value, and not least so that we do not descend into another hype cycle.
3Ders: As in your previous books, you have dedicated a chapter to bioprinting.
Chris: Absolutely, not least because the 3D printout of living tissue both fascinates me, and offers such extraordinary potential. There are now several commercial bioprinters on the market, and many research teams continue to make very impressive progress in the field, and often ahead of schedule. Not least, in recent months Organovo have started selling thei ExVive bioprinted Human Kidney Tissue, in addition to their Human Liver Tissue launched in 2014. They’ve also announced the development of human liver tissue patches for transplantation, which they expect to be ready for testing within three to five years. Add to this the progress made by Bioprinting Solutions in Russia in successfully transplanting bioprinted thyroids into mice about a year ago, and I think it is becoming clear that we will see the first human trials of implanted bioprinted tissues in the early 2020s.
3Ders: You also make the case that bioprinting will have applications far beyond the medical sphere.
Chris: Absolutely. This links to my belief that the coming revolution in digital manufacturing will involve a blend of technologies, of which 3D printing things in layers will be just one. Also involved will be the molecular self-assembly of both inorganic and organic materials. And this is why bioprinting is so important.
Today, when we 3D print in plastics or metals, although some final post-processing may be required, the object is pretty much in its finished 3D form as it leaves the printer. But when we bioprint in living cells, an organic self-assembly process continues after printout, with the bioprinted cells fusing together and re-arranging according to the digital dictates of their inherent biology. This means that, for example, when we are able to bioprint complex organs like kidneys or livers, we will not have to 3D print in layers every minute capillary, as these structures will organically self-assemble in the living material after printout.
Fast forward a decade or few, and my hunch is that we will start to 3D print many things out of synthetic, self-assembling materials. For millennia human beings have made things out of things such as wood and leather that were once alive, but which we use in a dead state. So we have a strong history of leveraging organic self-assembly to make a lot of products. And by combining layer-by-layer manufacturing with developments in synthetic biology and ‘nanotechnology 2.0’, I think we will discover many amazing new ways to turn CAD designs into physical things.
3Ders: I think you are giving away the ending to the book!
Chris: To some extent that is true! But I would not want to leave you with the impression that I’ve written a work of science fiction. As in the two previous editions, most of what I’ve done has been to report on the down-to-earth hard facts of every existing 3D printing technology I can find, as well as the state of the industry making those technologies, and the pioneers who are innovating their application. As I hope to have conveyed in this interview, everybody with an interest and stake in 3D printing now needs to strike a careful balance between realism and future possibility, and more than anything I hope that 3D Printing: Third Edition does that.
3Ders: And will there be a fourth edition?
Chris: If there is a demand for it, then yes, I’ll be back with another update in late 2018. And by which time I think the 3D printing industry will look very different than it does today.
Readers looking to get a taste of 3D Printing: Third Edition before buying can download its preface and first chapter for free. More info about the new book can be found on on Christopher Barnatt's website.
Posted in Interviews
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