A Brief History of 3D Printing

History of 3D Printing

3D printing is a tremendously exciting new technology that is changing the face of modern manufacturing. The transformative impact of this technology on the way we produce things is only likely to increase as it continues developing. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, has become considerably 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 actually been around for three 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 in 1981. Kodama had invented a device which used a 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, where it has significantly improved 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 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, which remains one of the most common 3D printing techniques today.

While Kodama had actually 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 which are still widely used today. It was the development of the STL file format that 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 have it reproduced automatically by a 3D printer.

The Field Quickly Expands

While stereolithography was the first system to be patented, there were other technologies 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 patent for Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). Deckard actually 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 a wide range of industries for models and for end-use parts.

The year 1989 saw the arrival of the German additive manufacturing company EOS GmbH. They focused primarily on the laser sintering technology and would soon come up with 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.

It was also during this period that 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 enough, Scott Crump had the idea for FDM while in the process of making a toy frog for his daughter using a glue gun loaded with wax and polyethylene.

During the 90s, several other 3D printing companies would emerge 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 their respective strengths. While LS is 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 really 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 all over the world contributing to the goal of producing cheap, effective 3D printers, thereby bringing 3D printing out of the factory and into the home. The RepRap project adopted FDM technology and has inspired many desktop 3D printers which have also employed extrusion.

In the nineties, two important trends emerged in the additive manufacturing industry which has continued to the present. The first is the ever-improving quality of the high-end machines. The second is the ever-lowering cost of consumer-grade 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 pretty much 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 almost commonplace.

While 3D printing is still a relatively new technology, it has already had an impact on the manufacturing sector. The reduction in tooling costs and the increased pace of product development have already changed the game in meaningful ways. But the biggest changes have yet to come. With additive and digital manufacturing technology in general, we are beginning to see a shift of manufacturing back to the United States.

The automation of manufacturing means fewer labor costs and more of an emphasis on design and computer science than on 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, in the near future, we may not be shipping products around the world nearly as much as we are now. This could be important when it comes to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and move 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 there is a dedicated core group of enthusiasts who benefit from having a machine in their homes, most of the desktop units are actually used in schools and businesses. The affordability has improved dramatically, but you still need to have CAD design skills to generate the STL files that make the 3D printers run.

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 machine themselves.

This is where Cad Crowd comes in! We offer world-class 3D printing design services for anyone who has a product idea but lacks the expertise to create a CAD file. With our contract 3D printing services, we also take you to the next step and connect you with leading additive manufacturing companies ready to produce your design. Get a free quote when you’re ready to get started.

About the Author

MacKenzie Brown is the founder of Cad Crowd

Topics: Manufacturing & rapid prototyping

Need 3D CAD design help?