History of 3D Printing

3D Printing is a process where you can create a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down many successive thin layers of material, and this process can bring a digital object into its physical form. The process of 3D printing is being used at the forefront of manufacturing, medicine, art, and the domestic realm in the present time. It can produce fast, customized, and inexpensive products which could bring a sea change in contemporary culture. But have you ever wondered how 3D printing started?

Well, 3D printing is not as new as you think it is because it has been emerging since the 1980s, which was also when its first patent was filed. If you’re curious, read on and know more about the history of 3D printing.

The 1980s: Introduction of the 3 Main 3D Printing Techniques

It was in the late 1980s when the earliest 3D printing technologies first became visible. During those times, it was called Rapid Prototyping technologies because the processes were originally conceived as a fast and more cost-effective method to create prototypes for product development within an industry.

In May 1980, the very first patent application for Rapid Prototyping technology was filed by Dr. Kodama in Japan. However, the full patent specification was not filed before the one-year deadline after the application was submitted, which was disastrous knowing that he was a patent lawyer.

The origins of 3D printing can also be traced back to 1986 when the first patent for stereolithography apparatus or SLA was issued. It belonged to Charles Hull who first invented his SLA machine in 1983. After that, he went on to co-found 3D Systems Corporation which is one of the largest and most productive organizations operating in the 3D printing sector today. A year later, Charles Hull released the SLA-1.

In 1988, Carl Deckard from the University of Texas, brought a patent for the Selective Laser Sintering or SLS technology. It was another 3D printing technique where powder grains are merged together locally by a laser.

In the meantime, a co-founder of Stratasys Inc. filed a patent for Fused Deposition Modeling or FDM which is the third of the main 3D printing technologies. The three main technologies of 3D printing, SLA, SLS, and FDM, were patented and 3D printing was born over less than ten years.

The 1990s: Development of the Main 3D Printers Manufacturers & CAD Tools

The Fused Deposition Modeling or FDM patent was issued to Stratasys in 1992. They have developed many 3D printers for both professional and individuals. After that, from 1993 to 1999, the main actors of the 3D printing sector were developed with different techniques such as the Zcorp and binder jetting, and Arcam MCP technology and Selective Laser Melting.

Aside from that, CAD tools for 3D printing also became more and more available and developed during those times. It was also in the 1990s when the application of 3D printing was first used by medical researchers. They began combining medicine and 3D printing which opened the path to a lot of uses.

2000’s: 3D Printing and Its Media Visibility

The first 3D printed working kidney was introduced in 2000, however, it took about 13 more years before it was seen transplanted into a patient. But in the present time, 3D printed kidneys are now working perfectly and a lot of researchers are experimenting on accelerated growth to transplant organs quickly.

In 2004, the RepRap project was initiated and it consists of a self-replicating 3D printer. The open source of this project had led to the dissemination of the FDM 3D desktop 3D printers, and as well as the popularity of the technology in the makers’ community.

ZCorp then launched the Spectrum Z510 in 2005. It was the very first high-definition color 3D printer. 3D printing reached an even greater media presence in 2008 because of another medical application which was the first 3D printed prosthetic limb. It has all the parts of a biological limb and it was amazingly printed as is, without the need for any later assembly. Today, medical prosthesis and orthosis combined with 3D printing are becoming cheaper and very fast to acquire.

The year 2009 opened the way to a wide wave of innovation in FDM 3D printers during the time in which the FDM patents fell into public domain. There was a drop in the desktop 3D printers price, and consequently, increased visibility since the technology became more accessible.  

The 2010s: 3D Printing’s Years of Visibility, Innovation, and Hopes

In 2009, the FDM patent expired and the first years of the decade have become the years of 3D printing. In 2010, the desktop technology invaded the marked and made the industrial sector rethink about additive manufacturing as a reliable production technique. Even though the total shift of consumption to additive manufacturing has not happened yet, 3D printing is getting into common imaginations and practices.

As the years pass, the 3D printing technology continues to progress and there are more small and big companies that are taking advantage of the low prototyping price that 3D printing offers and they have fully integrated it in their iteration, innovation, and production procedures.

The first 3D printed prototype car was created in 2010 and it was called Urbee. Its body was printed using a very large 3D printer. However, today, the 3D printed car is more like a dream than reality but many actors in the manufacturing process find it as a good alternative compared to traditional methods.

Cornell University began to build a 3D food printer in 2011. And even though it can be quite trivial at first sight, NASA began researching how astronauts will be able to 3D print foods in space. After their research, 2014, they brought a 3D printer in space to create the first 3D printed object off of the earth.

There are also many medical 3D printing advances that were created over the years such as tissues, organs, and low-cost prosthesis. New 3D printers are now being issued regularly because they are more efficient, can print faster, and can give access to new 3D printing materials.

The Future of 3D Printing Technology

There have been a lot of developments with the 3D printing technology through the years but the big dream of 3D printing is “Walmart or Home Depot in the palm of your hands” or maybe “A factory in everyone’s home”. That can be a thrilling or a frightening thought but we can’t deny how extremely attractive it is to own a machine that can churn out infinitely customizable things on a whim.

3D printing can give us a different world in the future and might do the same for manufacturing just like how the computer and the smartphones have empowered billions of people. There are also lots of 3D printing enthusiasts that say 3D printers will soon be an integral part of every household. But for some, the technology is not there yet, and all we can do is watch closely and speculate.  

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