3D printing technology has permeated so many industries today that it’s difficult to imagine a time when it did not exist. With its applications in the future projected to be even more exciting, taking a glimpse into this technology’s early days can help put this groundbreaking innovation into a broader context.
3D printing was invented in 1986 by Charles W. Hull, an American furniture maker. He patented this technology which featured 3D model creation by curing photosensitive resin on a layer-by-layer approach. He later founded 3D Systems, which sells 3D printers to date.
This article will explore some helpful questions, including when 3D printing was invented, who invented it, and the driving force behind its invention. So, let’s take a glimpse into the fascinating history of 3D printing!
3D Printing – The Beginnings
We can trace the development of the first 3D printing technologies back to the early 1980s.
Technically, Charles Hull is credited as the creator of stereolithography, the first kind of commercial prototyping technology known as 3D printing.
Similar processes had been suggested before by Dr. Hideo Kodama and three French researchers in the early 1980s. However, they abandoned their patents.
Although the origins of 3D printing are rooted in the 1980s, when the first patent for this process was filed, we can trace the idea behind 3D printing further back to the mid-1940s.
Drew Turney from Autodesk notes that Murray Leinster, an author, was the first to propose the concept of 3D printing. In this book, Things Pass By, Leinster described a process of “feeding magnetronic plastics into a moving arm.” The moving arm would then draw in the air and scan these drawings using photocells. Then, plastic would emerge from the other end of this moving arm.
While this was merely a work of fiction at the time, there are parallels to be drawn between the technology Murray Leinster described and 3D printing today.
However, to get a sound grasp of the actual invention of 3D printing, you have to follow the patent process that preceded and followed the creation of the first 3D printer, as described below.
History of 3D Printing – The Patent Process
First Patent – Abandoned
In their study on the evolution of 3D printing, Italian researchers Ingrid Paoletti and Lorenzo Ceccon observe that Hideo Kodama was the first person to apply for a patent for 3D technology. Dr. Kodama was a lawyer working for the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute in Japan.
His proposed technology is primarily considered a precursor to modern stereolithography and photopolymerization. Accordingly, his technology – a layer-by-layer manufacturing approach sought to develop a rapid prototyping system. This process would use photosensitive resin polymerized by UV light.
Although Kodama filed for a patent in 1980, he did not follow up within the stipulated one-year deadline following the application.
Second Patent – Abandoned
In 1984, French researchers Jean-Claude Andre, Olivier de Witte, and Alain le Mehaute also filed for a patent for a rapid prototyping machine. Unlike Kodama’s process, which used resin, the French trio’s process involved using a laser to cure UV-sensitive liquid monomers into solids.
Like Kodama, Andre, Mehaute, and de Witte abandoned this patent filing.
Third Patent – The Birth of SLA
An American furniture builder, Chuck Hull, did what the Japanese and the French were unable to in 1986. This year, he filed a patent which was granted.
Chuck, frustrated by the lack of a process to create custom parts for his furniture, thought up new ways of rapidly creating the parts he needed with the help of an SLA-type printer.
The proposed system used ultraviolet laser beams to harden resin placed in a vat. Like the one proposed by the French, this process followed a sequence of cross-sections of the resin.
Hull adopted the .stl file extension, which is in use even today. Chuck Hull would go on to found 3D Systems Corporation in 1988. This company then promptly introduced the first commercial SLA 3D printer during the same year.
Fourth Patent – The Birth of SLS
Carl R. Deckard introduced an alternative to SLA around ten years later, not to be outdone by the Japanese, the French, or the Americans before him. From the University of Texas, Carl Deckard filed for a patent for Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) technology.
Unlike SLA, which used liquid, SLS technology would fuse powder particles using lasers. This fusion, like in SLA, would use cross-sections of the desired shape to guide the printing process.
The powder could consist of different materials, including ceramic, metal, plastic, or glass. This material would be preheated in a bed placed below the fusion point. Interestingly, this technique was already proposed almost a decade earlier, in 1979, by R. F Housholder.
However, Deckard did not commercialize this technology at the time.
Fifth Patent – The Birth of FDM
Two years after SLA, Scott Crump filed a patent in 1989 for a new 3D printing technique he had invented – fused deposition modeling (FDM). FDM is arguably one of the most popular 3D printing techniques, particularly for low-cost labs and hobbyists.
The main difference between FDM and both SLA and SLS was that FDM used a filament that protruded from a heated nozzle, which is why this technique is also referred to as Fused Filament Fabrication.
In this technique, the fused material – usually plastic, would be deposed layer by layer, based on a .stl file. In 1992, Stratasys – Scott Crump’s company, commercialized the first machines to use this technique.
He secured a patent, which would expire later in 2009. SLS, SLA, and FDM serve as the main building blocks of modern 3D printing technology.
3D Technology Growth Years
The 1990s to 2010 witnessed rapid growth and innovation in 3D printing technology. Some of the major highlights from this period include the following:
MIT Enters the 3D Printing Game – 1993
MIT made its mark in the 3D printing game in 1993. They introduced a technique of binding a bed of powder, layer by layer, using an inkjet printer. Because they used an actual printer, this was the first technique strictly considered 3D printing.
Dot-on-Dot Technique – 1993
Sanders Prototype, Inc introduced the dot-on-dot technique in 1993, the same year as MIT’s process. The basis for this technique was polymer jetting using soluble supports. Although the researchers initially printed these models on wax, the process yielded high-precision output.
Hence, this period witnessed some of the highest precision in 3D printing since its inception in the 1980s.
The Selective Laser Melting Process – 1995
The Fraunhofer Institute ILT, Aachen, pushed the development of 3D printing a notch further forward by inventing the selective laser melting process in 1995. In selective layer melting, a metal powder melts under the heat of a laser beam, forming layers.
Like the dot-on-dot technique before it, this process featured high-res results. This process also created mechanically robust end products. Today, the selective laser melting process is one of the most popular additive manufacturing (AM) processes that use metallic materials.
1999 – The Birth of Bioprinting
Bioprinting presents one of the most groundbreaking innovations in medical technologies over the last three decades. This process makes it possible to print biological tissues, organs, and biomedical parts.
In 1999, the Wake Forest Institute for regenerative medicine successfully experimented with bioprinting techniques, creating and transplanting the first lab-grown organ. This new development in technology was a fitting way to end the 1900s and usher in the new millennium with a bright vision for regenerative medicine.
RepRap Open-Source Project – 2004
The RepRap open-source project was a 3D revolution. This project aimed to create self-replicable 3D printers to increase everyone’s access to additive manufacturing technology.
The RepRap was a free desktop 3D printer capable of printing objects made of plastic. Because the RepRap consisted of plastic, it could self-replicate and create a kit for itself that anybody could quickly assemble and create a new RepRap.
This way, people with this desktop 3D printer could print a wide variety of plastic materials and print a RepRap for their friends or family to use.
Beginning of Commercial 3D Printing – 2006
The potential commercial aspects of 3D printing came to light in 2006. The Dutch saw potential in this technology and launched Shapeways this year. The company received 3D files from users.
Shapeways would then print these 3D objects and send them back to the user’s address for a fee. Shapeways used a wide variety of materials and techniques to create these files.
MarketBot Creates DIY kit for 3D Printers – 2009
MakerBot made a splash in the 3D printer scene by introducing Cupcake CNC. This custom kit version allowed anyone to create 3D printed objects at home. It would take several more years and more updated versions of the DIY kit for the company to issue a fully-assembled printer.
However, MakerBot served the essential purpose of providing households with the ability to create 3D objects from scratch. Three years earlier, the company had issued its first commercial 3D printer.
3D Printing Goes Mainstream – 2010 Onwards
Before the 2010s, 3D printing primarily focused on prototyping. However, approaching the 2010s, 3D printing had shown its potential in different fields, from bioengineering to manufacturing.
3D printing hardware was now more readily available and affordable for more users.
With the growth in available 3D printing technologies and the increased precision that came with them, it was time to put 3D printing into production.
Introducing SULSA – 2011
The Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft (SULSA) marked the first production application for 3D printing technology. A laser sintering machine printed the structure for the crewless aircraft. The printer created every plane part, including everything from the control surfaces to the wings.
The laser sintering machine used in this process featured resolutions of 100 micrometers for each layer. The researchers quickly assembled the printed parts without tools with a snap-fit design.
Several years later, in 2015, there were considerations to equip naval ships with multi-material 3D printers, which would produce unarmed aerial vehicles like SULSA.
2014 – The Sky’s the Limit
In 2014, Airbus Operation GmbH raised the stakes a little higher, both literally and figuratively. The company filed a patent to print an entire airplane structure using 3D technology. This development showed that 3D printing could dominate the skies.
According to a 2014 article in Forbes, 3D printing was rapidly becoming mainstream and was a solution to producing airplane parts on demand. According to the article, 3D printing technology offered lower costs and a less environmental impact in creating airplane parts.
In so doing, 3D printing technology showed its potential to revolutionize aircraft manufacturing and design by eliminating traditional manufacturing bottlenecks. Additionally, parts that once took months to manufacture could now be ready to use in days.
Looking Back at the Journey
The building blocks and the main ideas behind additive manufacturing processes sprung up in the early 1980s. Before the 2000s, the primary focus was on prototyping, but, over time, there was a gradual shift towards the other potential applications of this technology.
3D printing started as an approach to rapidly prototype objects in engineering to counter limitations such as material availability and lack of desired mechanical strength. However, this technology is being adopted in entirely new ways to produce different elements with very high-quality output.
Present Day – Endless Possibilities
All indications are that 3D printing will revolutionize and disrupt the industrial complex and material supply chains. Suffice to say, 3D technology is yet to achieve its final form, and the next phase of 3D printing, guided by new research, could tell a different story.
As explained by Metal AM, the value of additive technology parts is projected to more than double from 12 billion dollars in 2020 to 51 billion dollars in the year 2030. Most of this will be in the manufacturing of end-use parts.
The medical and dental industry will also likely fuel this growth in demand for additively manufactured parts. As it stands, 3D printing looks as if it will shape the future of manufacturing.
3D printing has gone through four decades of growth to become what it is today. With its early beginnings set in the 1980s, this technology is arguably one of the most disruptive technologies, as it has shaped and influenced most industries today.
It is clear from its history that this technology has followed a gradual, continuous improvement process and increased precision. If this trend continues, then the possibilities are endless.