3D printing is a tremendously exciting new technology that is changing the face of modern manufacturing. The transformative impact of this technology on producing things is only likely to increase as it continues developing. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, has become more visible in recent years, as 3D printing companies pop up in more communities and 3D printed products become more popular. While it may seem like 3D printing has only recently exploded onto the scene, the technology has been around for several decades.
3D Printing History — The Early Days
The earliest talk of producing three-dimensional objects through additive layering goes back to the 1970s, if not earlier. But it wasn’t until 1981 that the first 3D printing patent was awarded to Hideo Kodama of Japan 1981. Kodama had invented a device that used UV light to harden photoreactive polymers. Like other early forms of additive manufacturing, the idea was that the technology would be useful for creating models and prototypes. Since then, additive manufacturing technologies have been used for rapid prototyping, significantly improving the speed of the product development process.
Only three years later, in 1984, a team of French inventors led by Alain Le Mehaute applied for the first patents on the stereolithography method, which is still widely used today. Stereolithography (SLA) is much like Kodama’s invention, relying on UV light to harden photopolymers. Remarkably, their patent application was abandoned by General Electric. The reason? They didn’t foresee any significant business prospects in the idea.
This lack of foresight was unfortunate for Le Mehaute and his colleagues, but it benefited the man now widely recognized as the father of 3D printing: Chuck Hull. Hull would file his patent for a stereolithography machine a mere three weeks after the French team had filed their patent application. Hull’s application was not to be abandoned, however. In 1986, Hull named the process stereolithography one of today’s most common 3D printing techniques.
While Kodama had invented this system before Hull came up with his machine and coined the term, he did make another important and unique contribution to the history of 3D printing. This was the development of the STL file format — the digital files that can be read by 3D printers still widely used today. The development of the STL file format allowed additive manufacturing to become what it is today. With this combination of hardware and software, it became possible to design a 3D model on a computer and reproduce it automatically with a 3D printer.
The Field Quickly Expands
While stereolithography was the first system to be patented, other technologies were being developed during the same period. While Kodama, Le Mehaute, and Hull were working on SLA, others were developing sintering and extrusion-based techniques for the additive layering of 3D objects.
In 1987, Carl Deckard filed a Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) patent. Deckard conceived the invention while an undergrad and continued to develop it throughout his Masters and Ph.D. Deckard had dreamed of becoming an inventor since visiting the Henry Ford Museum as a child. His dreams came true in a big way. The laser sintering process has become the most popular 3D printing technology, used across various industries for models and end-use parts.
1989 saw the arrival of the German additive manufacturing company EOS GmbH. They focused primarily on laser sintering technology and would soon develop Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS). With DMLS, laser sintering would become the only 3D printing technology capable of producing entirely metal parts. This greatly expanded the range of applications for which 3D printers could be used, as complex parts could now be created from real, durable metals.
During this period, the most popular method of 3D printing in use today was first invented. Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) was developed by S. Scott Crump, who invented and patented the technology in 1989. Crump and his wife Lisa founded Stratasys that same year, which has remained a leading manufacturer of 3D printers.
While SLA shines a UV light to harden polymers and SLS uses a C02 laser to fuse powders, FMD took an entirely different approach. With FDM, a cable of thermoplastic material is fed through a heated nozzle that extrudes the liquefied material in layers to create the part being printed. Interestingly, Scott Crump had the idea for FDM while making a toy frog for his daughter using a glue gun loaded with wax and polyethylene.
During the 90s, several other 3D printing companies emerged, including ZCorporation, Objet Geometries, and others. Each would contribute to the development of the technology.
The Technology Takes Off and Comes Home
These three technologies — SLA, LS, and FDM — have remained the three dominant additive manufacturing techniques, and each has its respective strengths. While LS is the most widely used in manufacturing, FDM has become the most well-known method for the general public since it is the technology used in consumer-grade 3D printers, so-called “desktop 3D printers.”
The project of bringing additive manufacturing into the home took root with the RepRap project. Launched in 2005, the RepRap initiative set out to create an affordable 3D printer that could replicate itself, which is where the project gets its name. RepRap stands for Replicated Rapid Prototyper. In other words, a RepRap printer can print other RepRap printers.
The RepRap project is an open-source initiative, with participants worldwide contributing to producing cheap, effective 3D printers, bringing 3D printing out of the factory and into the home. The RepRap project adopted FDM technology and has inspired many desktop 3D printers, employing an extrusion process.
In the nineties, two critical trends emerged in the additive manufacturing industry which has continued to the present. The first is the ever-improving quality of the high-end 3D printing machines, and the second is the ever-lowering cost of consumer-grade 3D printing machines for the home audience.
By the 2000s, the cost of 3D printers decreased substantially. Commercial units became available for under $10,000, and RepRap units were free for DIYers and hobbyists at home. Other firms also emerged to meet the growing demand for desktop printers. 3D printers were getting better and cheaper, which they have continued to do. While it once seemed like science fiction, additive manufacturing is becoming commonplace.
While 3D printing is still a relatively new technology, it has already impacted the manufacturing sector. The reduction in tooling costs and the increased pace of product development has changed the game in meaningful ways. But the most significant changes have yet to come. With additive and digital manufacturing technology in general, we are beginning to see a shift in manufacturing back to the United States.
Automating manufacturing means fewer labor costs and more emphasis on design and computer science than unskilled factory work. This could be a boon for local economies as it undermines the need for companies to outsource manufacturing. It also means that we may not be shipping nearly as many products worldwide as we are now. This could be important for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and moving away from fossil fuels.
From the Present to the Future
Today, desktop 3D printers are cheaper and better than ever and are continuing to improve. What the history of the 3D printer tells us is that technology will continue to advance very quickly. Soon, every home will have a 3D printer.
While a dedicated core group of enthusiasts benefits from having a 3D printing machine in their homes, most desktop units are used in schools and businesses. The affordability has improved dramatically, but you still need CAD design skills to generate the STL files that make 3D printers function.
Besides, the quality achievable by the commercial units is still far above what the more modest consumer-grade printers can produce. For most individuals, 3D printing services are the best way to take advantage of the ever-growing potential of additive manufacturing. Buyers can get access to top-of-the-line printers and materials for the projects they need without having to invest in buying a 3D printer themselves.
Cad Crown Has Freelance 3D Printing Services
This is where Cad Crowd comes in! We offer world-class 3D printing design services for anyone with a product idea that lacks the expertise to create a CAD file. Our contract 3D printing services also take you to the next step and connect you with leading additive manufacturing companies ready to produce your design. Learn how it works, or get a free quote when you’re ready to get started.