10 Eras in the History of 3D Printing
Just as the printing press changed the possibilities for the written word and ushered in a new era of widespread literacy, so too is 3D printing transforming the world of manufacturing. 3D printers use a compound mixture called photopolymers to manufacture three-dimensional objects in exacting layer-by-layer process. Building upon computer-aided design (CAD) programming, a 3D printer can be used to make almost anything imaginable from complete playable ukuleles to sensitive airplane parts.
The world of 3D printing is a fast-moving technology with new developments outpacing widespread understanding about the technology. Sophisticated applications for 3D printing medicine and science are currently developed. A new field of additive manufacturing (AM) seeks to harness the power of 3D printing to disrupt traditional manufacturing. It has even been reported that NASA has invested in trying to find a way to 3D print food for astronauts in space.
3D printing has a bright future, but did you know that the technology is probably much older than you would imagine? The first 3D printers were developed way back in the 1980s. Below, we’ll describe the history of 3D printing and highlight milestones in the technology’s development:
1. From Science Fiction to Reality
The boom in science fiction stories following the Second World War by authors like Murray Leinster and Eric Frank Russell imagined a world in which we could “print” things that we needed at home. Serious research and work into developing a 3D printer began in earnest in the 1980s.
The history of 3D printing continued in 1981, a Japanese inventor named Dr. Hideo Kodama filed a patent for a rapid prototyping device, which would use a laser beam to cure a resin and produce three dimensional objects. His work was never funded.
2. More patents
Around the same time as Dr. Kodama’s patent, a trio of French scientists, Jean-Claude André, Olivier de Witte, and Alain le Méhauté, began working together. In 1984, they filed a patent for a device that would test some of le Méhauté’s ideas about producing intricate parts from a liquid plastic cured into solids by laser. Unfortunately, backers said that they could not see a business application for the technology, and the project was abandoned.
Not long after André, de Witte, and le Méhauté’s patent, Charles “Chuck” Hull was working for a furniture manufacturer that specializes in tabletops and was frustrated with the difficulties involved in getting small custom-made components manufactured. He proposed using UV lamps to cure a photosensitive material in a layer-by-layer process to essentially manufacture any part they needed on demand.
Later, he filed for a patent to develop a different device, which he called stereolithography, or STL, for short. Hull’s STL became a file format for stereolithography CAD software, which became an integral part in the history of 3D printing.
4. Going commercial: 3D Systems Corporation
When Chuck Hull received his patent in 1986, he founded the 3D Systems Corporation in Valencia, California to develop the technology. Within two years, 3D Systems had developed their first 3D printing product, the SLA-1. The arrival of the SLA-1 kicked off the commercial development of the 3D printing industry. The company continues to be a major innovator in the history of 3D printing technology today.
5. Further refinements
Other scientists and engineers continued to develop and refine competing additive manufacturing technologies. An undergraduate at the University of Texas named Carl Deckard filed a patent in 1988 for a process called selective laser sintering (SLS). Deckard was able to prove the viability of SLS in tests he made using a machine he called “Betsy,” which produced crude hunks of plastic.
6. Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
Also, in 1988, Scott Crump developed a process called fused deposition modeling that would form the basis for most 3D printers to come. Fused deposition modeling used a special application of plastic extrusion to build structures layer by layer. Crump founded a company called Stratasys in Minnesota. By 1992, Stratasys had received their patent and marketed a commercial FDM machine.
7. 3D Printing
With these major 3D printing processes and products on the market, competition in the 3D Printing industry started to heat up in the 1993. The term 3D printing was first used in 1993 to refer to a different powder-based jet printing technology that had been developed at MIT.
Several companies tried to capitalize on this, but the term came to be more broadly used. Other proprietary 3D printing technologies, like the selective laser melting process introduced by the Fraunhofer Institute in 1995 would arrive.
8. FDM enters the public domain
In 2009, Scott Crump’s patent for Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) expired. This is probably about the same time that you started seeing 3D printing just about everywhere. Since then, new developments and applications have been relentless. A Swedish car manufacturer began making a supercar made mostly from many 3D printed components in 2014.
Printed parts have been incorporated into aircraft used by the Royal Air Force, the United States Air Force and the Israeli Air Force. 2012 saw a brief media panic about the potential of 3D printing to freely spread guns and other dangerous weapons that would evade metal detectors.
9. 3D Printing enters the Healthcare Industry
3D printing pioneers like Chuck Hall had not imagined the medical applications that 3D printing would make possible. In the early 2000s, a research team from Harvard Medical School working at Boston Children’s Hospital conducted a series of trials in which they attempted to rebuild replacement urinary bladders. The researchers built a kind of skeletal scaffolding that were then layered with cells taken from the patient with the goal of growing a working organ. Incredibly, the trials proved successful, inspiring researchers to expand and automate the process.
The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) opened in 2004 to conduct further research into “3D printing” tissues and organs. The Centre for Applied Reconstructive Technologies in Surgery (CARTIS) in the UK in 2014 for using 3D printed materials to reconstruct the face of a motorcyclist who had been severely injured in an accident. Other medical applications of 3D printing have included artificial hips, jawbones, and skulls.
The most dramatic and science fiction sounding application of 3D printing technology has been the advent of bio-printing technology. Bio-printing uses inkjet printing techniques to slow assemble living organs, tissue, and other body parts by depositing layers of cells are onto a receptive medium. The technology is still in its infancy, but projections look promising.