A Detailed History of 3D Printing
The 3D printing buzz began a few years ago, catching the attention of the wider public in a big way. The media played a huge role in making “3D printing” the latest watchword in technological innovation. They began to showcase the true potential of this fascinating industry on a frequent basis. Since then, 3D printing has taken the nation by storm. People love the idea of being able to create all kinds of custom products as and when they need them. Yet despite this recent phenomenon, 3D printing has been with us for a while. It’s been around for a lot longer than most people realize, that’s for sure. The aim of this guide is to walk you through the detailed history of 3D printing. We’ll start from its early beginnings up to the present day and beyond.
3D printing In Layman’s Terms
Before moving on, it’s important to define 3D printing in laymen’s terms for the uninitiated readers. If you already understand the workings of 3D technology, feel free to skip this section. For everyone else, it’ll pay you to read through it. Don’t worry; we’re not going to get too technical here.
You’ll often hear others refer to 3D printing as additive manufacturing (AM). The latter involves the whole process of making 3D solid objects from computer-generated files, or digital files. The actual 3D printing process is only one part of the entire procedure. Despite this, the two terms are largely interchangeable these days, so for the sake of simplicity we’ll use 3D printing most of the time.
So what is 3D printing exactly and why should you care?
3D printing technology has begun to revolutionize the way we produce entire physical objects and parts in the last few years. The range of things produced by 3D printing today is vast, and continues to get more ambitious. At the time of writing, we can 3D print anything from simple toys to clothing to tools. We can also use the technology to produce musical instruments and even human body parts. Yes, you did read that right. The potential, it seems, is endless.
How does 3D printing work exactly?
The best way to describe 3D printing is to look at how a regular inkjet printer works. First we create the computerized file, whatever form that’s in. This could be a word processor file, a spreadsheet, or an image, etc. Once our file is ready we upload it to the printer via the computer, and then press the ‘PRINT’ button. The printer then extrudes (forces) ink from a nozzle onto the paper. After a single print cycle, the end result is a two-dimensional representation of the digital file. 3D printing operates in a similar way. The main differences are with the materials used and extra print-cycles.
With 3D printing, you also need to upload a digital file to the printer. You’ll see these files referred to as 3D models, 3D computer graphics, CAD files, and more. Whatever they are, the 3D printer needs a file before it can print your design. 3D printing uses special types of ink, known as filaments. These can range from thermoplastics to metals, glass, paper and even wood substances. We’ll look more into 3D printing materials later. And the other main difference is that 3D printing has to go through many print cycles, or layers, to produce a physical object. This is where it gets the name ‘additive manufacturing’. As you can see, the print theories between inkjet and 3D are very similar.
What else do I need to know about 3D printing and printer technology?
The most exciting thing about 3D printing today is that it’s no longer the stuff of scientists, engineers, and scientific experiments. It’s becoming popular because of the rising demand from interested consumers. The result is smaller, easier to operate machines at much lower costs. Hobbyists and enthusiasts can now buy budget end 3D printers for the price of a regular smartphone. Some even think we’ll soon be 3D printing our own unique products on demand. How cool is that!
3D Printing in the Late 1980s
Yes you read the title right. Stereolithography (SLA), commonly known as 3D printing, has been around since the 1980s. Those early pioneers called it Rapid Prototyping (RP) technologies. That’s a bit of a mouthful for most of us—hence the term 3D printing was born. Although printing is only one part of the process, most people prefer to use the term ‘3D printing’ when talking about the technology in general. Back in the 1980s, few could have realized the full potential of this amazing technology. They first used this early process as an affordable way to create prototypes for product development within certain industries.
Not a Lot of People Know This
Not a lot of people know this, but a Japanese lawyer called Dr. Hideo Kodama, was the first person to file a patent for Rapid Prototyping (RP) technology. Unfortunately for him, the authorities denied his application. Why? Because Kodama missed the one-year deadline and so failed to file the full patent requirements on time. This was back in May, 1980. As Dr. Kodama was a patent lawyer, his blunder was both embarrassing and disastrous.
Here’s something else that’s’ not common knowledge: Four years after Dr. Kodama, a French team of engineers decided to run with the technology. Although they had a keen interest in stereolithography, they soon had to abandon their mission. Despite their best intentions, there was a sad lack of interest in 3D printing from a business perspective. This wasn’t the end though. There was someone else who had a keen interest in the technology, and he picked up where the French left off.
Fast Forward to 1986
The actual origin of 3D printing, as we know it, has a different date. Today we can trace the very first patent for SLA back to 1986. To give you an idea of how long it’s been around, if you’re under 30 that’s before you were born. The patent belonged to an American inventor name Charles (Chuck) Hull. He was the first person to invent the SLA machine (3D printer). This was the first ever device of its kind to print a real physical part from a digital (computer generated) file. Hull later went on to co-found DTM Inc., which 3D Systems Corporation later acquired.
From its humble beginnings, 3D Systems Corporation went on to become a name synonymous with 3D printing. In fact, it’s one of the biggest and most productive organizations to operate within the wider 3D printing sector today. Even Hull himself admitted he underestimated the true impact and potential his creation would have on the modern world. Even today, new research and exciting innovation is moving ahead at an unprecedented rate.
Here’s a recap of events:
- 1980: Rapid Prototyping (RP) technology patent failed by Dr Kodama
- 1984: Stereolithography taken up by a French team but soon abandoned
- 1986: Stereolithography taken up by American inventor Charles (Chuck) Hull
- 1987: Very first SLA-1 machine
- 1988: First SLS machine by DTM Inc; later acquired by 3D Systems Corporation
There was plenty of other, lesser known activity going on in the background during this time:
- Ballistic Particle Manufacturing (BPM) patented by William Masters
- Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) patented by Michael Feygin
- Solid Ground Curing (SGC) patented by Itzchak Pomerantz et al
- Three-dimensional printing (3DP) patented by Emanuel Sachs et al
Only those involved in 3D printing technologies during the early 1990s would have known about the buzz going on at that time. But like all competition, it’s the best of the best that survive and go on to make their mark in the world. Today we have three originals remaining, which are:
- 3D Systems
The rest—as they say—is history.
When 3D Printing First Became Popular
3D printing first became popular back in the late 1980s, but not in the public sense. Its early popularity was among various industries. They liked it because it offered rapid prototyping of industrial products and designs. It proved to be quick and accurate, but it was also cost effective. For a lot of industries, rapid prototyping technology was checking a lot of boxes, and continues to do so.
Like with all great innovations, 3D printing had to go through a life cycle before it reached maturity. Most good ideas never take off, for all kinds of reasons, but a few do. The good news is that the additive manufacturing (AM) technology has made it. If we take 3D printing from its origin to the present day, it will look something like this:
- The Infancy Stage: 1981 to 1999
- The Adolescence Stage: 1999 to 2010
- The Adult Stage: 2011 to the present day
Some will say that 3D printers and 3D printing technology is now in its prime. Others will argue that there’s still a long and exciting road ahead of us. The latter group is most likely correct, as the future potential looks incredible. Think 3D food and human body parts—it’s all on the table.
Let’s take a look at each of these important stages one at a time:
Stage 1: The Infancy History of 3D Printing
This period is from 1981 through to 1999. It all began in Japan with Dr. Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute (NMIRI). It was a public research institute in Nagoya city. It was here that Dr. Kodama published his findings of a fully-functional rapid prototyping (RP) system. The material used for the process was a photopolymer—a type of light-activated resin. This was a time when the first solid, 3D printed object came to be. Each print cycle added a new layer to the previous one. As it did this, each of these layers corresponded to a cross-sectional slice in the 3D model. This was the industry’s humble beginnings. And you know what happened after that to Dr. Hideo Kodama’s failed patent (see above).
Point of interest: Photopolymer is a kind of acrylic-based substance. It leaves the printer’s nozzle in liquid form from where an ultraviolet (UV) laser beam hits the exposed material. The exposed photopolymer instantly turns from a liquid to a solid plastic. After the printed layers eventually reach the model’s height, the 3D object is complete. When news of stereolithography first came out it excited inventors like nothing before it. For them, it meant they had the potential to print accurate prototypes and test new designs much faster. It also meant they’d be able to print prototypes with much less upfront investment time and costs.
Moving on three years to 1984, it was Chuck (Charles) Hull’s time. Hull went on to break new ground in 3D printing technology by inventing stereolithography (SLA or SL). SLA is special because it allows designers to create their 3D models using digital data files. They then upload these files to the printer to produce real physical, 3D objects, one layer at a time.
By the year 1992, Chuck Hall had realized his dream and created the world’s first ever SLA machine. Now anyone, who had the money, could fabricate complex 3D objects and object parts. SLA was a game changer. This new process took a fraction of the time compared to more traditional methods.
Also in 1992, DTM Inc. presented the first ever selective laser sintering (SLS) machine to the world. SLS works by shooting a laser at a powdered material rather than a liquid.
Rough Around the Edges
As exciting as these new technologies were, they still had some way to go before they made mainstream news headlines. Complex 3D models, in particular, proved hard to perfect. All too often, objects would warp as the material hardened. The machines were also expensive. They were certainly too costly for solo investors and hobbyists. It’s for these reasons that the technology was unheard of for decades after those first inventions. Even today, a time when 3D printing has become a buzz word, the real potential continues to unfold.
Stage 2: The Adolescent History of 3D Printing
The adolescent history runs from 1999 through to 2010. The general public still wasn’t familiar with 3D printing technology, but there were plenty of others who were. This was the decade where we saw the first ever 3D printed organ. In this case it was a human bladder. We have the Scientists at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine to thank for that. First they 3D printed the synthetic scaffolds of the organ. After that, they coated it with actual cells taken from real patients. It’s what happened next that was so exciting. Surgeons were able to implant the newly formed tissue into patients. What made this so groundbreaking is that the patient’s own immune system would not reject an implant made of their own body cells. Even today it sounds farfetched, but it happened, and bigger and better things continue to happen.
As far as medicine goes, this was the decade for 3D printing technologies. As research continued, more amazing medical uses for 3D printing emerged. Here are just three others that are hard to believe:
- The first fabricated, functional miniature kidney
- The first prosthetic leg which included complex components
- The first bio-printed blood vessels using human cells
3D Printing’s Open Source Movement
The medical profession was not the only beneficiary of 3D printing innovation during this decade. It was also a time where the open-source movement got involved with the technology. One historical movement led by Dr. Adrian Bowyer in 2005 has to get a mention here. His open-source initiative was an ambitious project. The challenge was to create a 3D printer that had the ability to build itself, or at least print the parts needed for the new machine. He aptly named this ‘The Replication Rapid-Prototyper Project‘ or RepRap for short.
By the year 2008, the Reprap Darwin 3D printer was born. This open-source project helped to launch 3D printing into the spotlight. For the first time people began to talk seriously about the potential of 3D technology. They could see that they had the power to create all kinds of things based on ideas. A website called ‘Kickstarter‘ launched in 2009. It’s now the largest funding platform in the world for creative projects. There have been countless 3D-printing-related projects crowd-funded from this one platform alone.
3D Printing Becomes a Buzz Word
It was somewhere around the mid-2000s when ‘3D printing’ became something of a buzz word. The very first selective laser sintering (SLS) machines were to become commercially viable. In 2006, on-demand manufacturing came into being for industrial parts. Soon after this, the ability to print with various other materials got industry even more excited. From an engineering standpoint, this was a huge deal, offering all sorts of options in parts production. At the end of this adolescent period in 3D printing history we began to see various collaborative co-creation services appear. The easily accessible 3D printing marketplace had arrived. Nowadays, people can exhibit their designs, share ideas, and freely swap information.
Also at the end of this era, MakerBot made an appearance. This was the first service of its kind to provide open-source DIY 3D printer kits. It was an affordable way for people to learn all about the technology as they built their own machines. At last, 3D printers were becoming accessible to the general public.
Stage 3: The Maturing History of 3D Printing
If you thought 3D printing had reached its peak, think again. It’s as though there’re no limits going forward. The speed in which the technology has picked up in recent times is nothing short of spectacular. It’s almost as if we’re living in the future. For home users, hobbyists, and small businesses, the news gets better all the time. Aside from the impressive technology, the other reasons why 3D printing is becoming so commonplace are as follows:
- The cost of 3D printers has plummeted
- The accuracy of 3D printing has improved and continues to get better
- The machines are user-friendly (anyone can use them)
- It’s easier to design 3D models thanks to free software programs
- Innovators continue to push the envelope, keeping things fresh and exciting
Charles Hull knew he was onto something big, but he could never have envisaged just how big it would all get. Today, anyone can print with materials other than plastics. There are options to print with metals, glass, paper and wood among others. What you can print is also keeping the industry alive and thrilling. You can print musical instruments, jewelry, household items, and clothing accessories. Future potential looks at 3D printed homes, drones, vehicles, foods, and other human body parts. There seems to be no limitations.
3D Printing in the Present Day – Where Are We Now?
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any better, things always do. At least this appears to be the case with 3D printing. The progress is so fast, and so groundbreaking, it won’t be long before the latter part of this guide is out of date. Seriously, it’s proving impossible to keep up sometimes. It’s only a matter of time when we’ll all be printing our own custom parts in 3D as and when we need them.
So what’s next? Nobody knows for sure, but what we can all agree on is that there will be more to write on 3D printing history in the future. At the time of writing this guide, the only limitations to date are human imagination, or so it seems. If we keep going like this, there will no longer be any ‘WOW’ factor. Perhaps that’s the only downside for those of us who love a great surprised.
The Road Ahead
Today, 3D printing is becoming more popular among the general public. Most people at least know what it is now, and some of the things it’s capable of. But unlike inkjet printing, few of us create 3D models and print them out on these amazing machines at home. At least not yet! The cost has come down by the thousands of dollars in recent years, and the technology has gotten better and continues to improve. But right now, the average person can’t justify owning their own machines, but this is set to change in the years ahead. It’s going to change because of the types of things we will be able to print in 3D in all kinds of different materials.
Anyone who wants to explore 3D printing and experience the technology can do. You don’t need to own a 3D printer to be able to print in 3D. It’s now possible to design your own 3D models using one of the free online 3D design programs like Tinkercad. Once you model is ready, you can find a local or online service to print your 3D model for you. It’s that easy.
There’s still plenty of future history around 3D printing so watch this space.
Written by Joseph Flynt.
Photo credit Adrian Bowyer