Designing, prototyping, and manufacturing new components and devices has always been a complicated process. Computer aided design software, such as those CAD software programs reviewed elsewhere on this site, have gone a long way in simplifying the process but recent 3D Printing technology is arguably doing more to shorten the prototyping and manufacturing stages. Often CAD designs describe a perfect case scenario, fits and tolerances, assembly, and part interaction in software simply can not replicate real world objects.
The popularity of 3D printers has greatly increased in the past few years. A number of factors contribute to this. More materials for printed are being added every day with printers now capable of producing one off prints in everything from plastic to tool steel. Some forward thinking research groups have even started working generating even crazier things like chocolate structures and human tissue. As the technology continues to evolve it is breaking out of the research labs and R&D departments and becoming a part of the mainstream culture.
But it may surprise you to know that 3D printing is not as new as many believe! In 2009 when the FDM patents expired, 3D printing became such a hot topic that it was easy to believe it was a brand new innovation. And because it gained such a wide media coverage, people often imagined that FDM was the only additive manufacturing technique. In reality, the first 3D printing technique was SLA, not FDM, and its first patent was filed as early as the 1980s!! Let us delve into the past and have a close look at the history of additive manufacturing.
In 1981, a Japanese lawyer called Dr. Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute was the first person to file a patent for Rapid Prototyping (RP) technology. Unfortunately for him, the authorities denied his application. The reason? Because Kodama missed the one-year deadline and so failed to file the full patent requirements on time. As Dr. Kodama was a patent lawyer, his blunder was both embarrassing and disastrous. Kodama’s account detailed a functional rapid prototyping system using photopolymers. A solid, printed model was built up in layers, each of which corresponded to a cross-sectional slice in the model.
Four years after Dr. Kodama, a French team of engineers decided to run with the technology. Although they had a keen interest in stereolithography, they soon had to abandon their mission. due to lack of interest in 3D printing from a business perspective.
In 1984, Charles Hull broke new ground by inventing stereolithography. Stereolithography lets designers create 3D models using digital data, which can then be used to create a tangible object. He founded the 3D Systems Corporation in 1986 and a year later, released the SLA-1.
In 1988, at the University of Texas, Carl Deckard brought a patent for the SLS technology, another 3D printing technique in which powder grains are fused together locally by a laser.
In the meantime, Scott Crump, a co-founder of Stratasys Inc. filed a patent for Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM): the third of the main 3D printing technologies, in which molten material is injected from the printer head
and then solidifies as it’s layered on to the print surface.
In Europe, EOS GmbH was founded and created the first EOS “Stereos” system for industrial prototyping and production applications of 3D printing. Its industrial quality is today recognized worldwide in SLS technology for plastics and metals.
In 1992, the Fused Deposition Modeling patent was issued to Stratasys, who that developed many 3D printers for both professional and individuals. Also in 1992, DTM Inc. presented the first ever selective laser sintering (SLS) machine to the world.
From 1993 to 1999, the main actors of the 3D printing sector emerged with various techniques:
- ZCorp and binder jetting: Based on MIT’s inkjet printing technology, they created the Z402, which produced models using starch- and plaster‐based powder materials and a water‐based liquid binder
- Arcam MCP technology and Selective Laser Melting.
The 1990s were also the decade of the first application of 3D printing by medical researchers, who started to combine medicine and 3D printing, opening the path to many uses.
These technologies were in their infancy and weren’t perfect; there was some warping in the material as it hardened, and the machines were prohibitively expensive for home inventors, but their potential was undeniable. Decades later, 3D printing history has shown that this potential is still unfolding.
In 2000, the millennium saw the first 3D printed working kidney. We will have to wait 13 more years to see it transplanted into a patient. 3D printed kidneys are now perfectly working and researchers are experimenting on accelerated growth to transplant organs very rapidly.
The Reprap project was founded by Dr Adrian Bowyer at the University of Bath in 2004. The project was intended as a democratization of 3D printing technology. The challenge was to create a 3D printer that had the ability to build itself, or at least print the parts needed for the new machine.This open source project led to the spreading of the FDM 3D desktop 3D printers, and of the popularity of the technology in the makers community.
In 2005, ZCorp launched the Spectrum Z510, the very first high-definition color 3D printer.
In 2008, 3D printing reached an even greater media presence thanks to another medical application: the first 3D printed prosthetic limb. It incorporated all parts of a biological limb, without the need for any later assembly.
2009 was the year in which the FDM patents fell into the public domain, opening the way to a wide wave of innovation in FDM 3D printers, a drop of the desktop 3D printers price, and consequently, since the technology was more accessible, an increased visibility.
The recent years have been very important for 3D Printing. In 2013, President Barack Obama mentioned 3D printing as a major issue for the future in his State of the Union speech, which finished to make “3D Printing” an absolute buzzword.
It is now very present in the general public’s mind, and in policy makers’ decisions. More and more small and big companies take advantage of the low prototyping price that 3D printing offers, and have fully integrated it in their iteration, innovation and production processes.
In 2010, Urbee was the first 3D printed prototype car. Its body was fully 3D printed using a very large 3D printer. Now, the 3D printed car is much more a dream than a reality but in the manufacturing process, many actors are considering it as a good alternative to traditional methods.
In 2011, Cornell University began to build a 3D food printer. At first sight, it could seem slightly trivial, but NASA is now researching how astronauts could 3D print food for in space.
In 2014, NASA brought a 3D printer in space to make the first 3D printed object off of the earth.
Many medical 3D printing advances: tissues, organs and low-cost prosthesis.
New 3D printers such as the Carbon 3D CLIP technology, which 3D prints strong mechanical resins at an unequaled speed.
New 3D printing materials are being explored every day, from Daniel Kelly’s lab who’s 3D printing bone to the French startup XtreeE, who’s 3D printing concrete to revolutionize the construction industry!
Today, 3D printing is becoming more popular among the general public. Most people at least know what it is now, and some of the things it’s capable of. But unlike inkjet printing, few of us create 3D models and print them out on these amazing machines at home. At least not yet! The cost has come down by the thousands of dollars in recent years, and the technology has gotten better and continues to improve. But right now, the average person can’t justify owning their own machines, but this is set to change in the years ahead. It’s going to change because of the types of things we will be able to print in 3D in all kinds of different materials.
So what’s next? Nobody knows for sure, but what we can all agree on is that there will be more to write on 3D printing history in the future. The only limitation is the human imagination.
The above article build on the following works: