What once might have seemed like a wonder of science fiction has now become a part of our everyday lives. 3D printing can be used for reconstructing evidence from a crime scene or fossils from ancient times. It can help an artist develop molds for their new project. And we’re only just beginning to unlock all of the potential of 3D printing.
The history of 3D printing spans back to 1971 in practice, although the concept was developed as early as 1945. Experiments throughout the 1980s helped to advance 3D printing until it became what it is today. But how did we get to this point? What are the next steps?
How Does 3D Printing Work?
Have you ever wanted to take an image and pull it into the physical world? With 3D printing, you can essentially do just that. 3D printing is the process of taking a digital file or image and printing it as a three-dimensional model. It’s also known as additive manufacturing.
First, the mold is designed on a 3D software, after which it is “sliced” or made into thousands of layers for the 3D printer. All of the sliced layers are then sent to the 3D printer. The printer releases molten plastic through a small nozzle to print layer by layer. When the first layer is printed and dried, the 3D printer repeats the purpose for the second layer. This repeats over and over until the 3D model is complete, made with plastic.
3D Printing: a Timeline
The first recorded concept of a 3D printer was actually in a science fiction story published in 1945, “Things Pass By” by Murray Leinster. It was then considered a fictitious wonder, but the description in the story sounds not far off from 3D printers now:
It makes drawings in the air following drawings it scans with photo-cells. But plastic comes out of the end of the drawing arm and hardens as it comes. This thing will start at one end of a ship or a house and build it complete to the other end, following drawings only.
At another point in the story, Leinster described:
The arm made clumsy but precise gestures, following the drawings off to one side. It had begun by putting a blob of magnetronic plastic on a stout upright… Then, for a while, it made gradually enlarging circles about that spot.
Little did Leinster know that the science fiction he envisioned would come to life within a few decades.
- 1971: A patent for a “liquid metal recorder” was filed by Johannes F. Gottwald. Though this printer was used to print symbols for immediate use, the definition of printing as the simple formation of ink opened doors that paved the way for the modern digital printer.
- 1980: Hideo Kodama invented and patented the first 3D printing method. This method utilized UV rays to melt and harden the resin. Although this was not supported by his employers and his patent was eventually abandoned due to lack of funds, it was the first of many patents, including Bill Masters’ Computer Automated Manufacturing in 1984.
- 1983-1986: In France, Olivier de Witte, Jean Claude Andre, and Alain Le Méhauté file patents for stereolithography (SLA), the method of 3D printing still used today. This patent is denied for a lack of business perspective, but three years later, Charles Hull invents an SLA machine with a successful patent.
- 1987: Building off the use of SLA, University of Texas undergraduate student Carl Deckard invents his selective laser sintering (SLS) process. His machine, which he named Betsy, was the first SLS 3D printer.
- 1989: Scott and Lisa Crump invent fused deposition modelling (FDM), which melted the polymer filament before printing it in layers. They later formed Stratasys, Inc., which is still a big name in 3D printing to this day. Also in 1989, Hans Langer makes a name for himself in Germany in the laser sintering research industry by forming EOS GmbH.
- 1997: Laser Additive Manufacturing (LAM) enters the scene, introduced by AeroMat. LAM uses powerful lasers to fuse, melt, and print powdered titanium alloy.
- 1999: The first human organ is created through a 3D printer, a bladder that included real cells printed by Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine.
- 2004: Adrian Bowyer founds the RepRap project, with the concept of a self-replicating 3D printer that prints all of its own components. In 2005, he makes this concept open source.
- 2008: “Darwin,” the first 3D printer in the RepRap series, is released and made commercially available. Meanwhile, a Dutch service called Shapeways is introduced which allows users to submit 3D files to be printed and shipped.
- 2009: A big year for 3D printing. The FDM patent expires, which causes a major price drop for FDM printers from $10,000 to $1,000. Platforms like Kickstarter swell in popularity and remain to this day the largest funding platform for 3D printing, like Micro. Meanwhile, Makerbot offers DIY kits for anyone who wants to build their own 3D printers, bringing 3D printers into the mainstream. Stratasys would later acquire Makerbot for $400 million in 2013.
- 2011: The University of South Hampton in the United Kingdom designs the first 3D unmanned printed aircraft. That year, at the TedXWinnipeg conference, Kor Ecologic unveils a 3D printed prototype car.
- 2015: Bio-ink, made from non-cellulose alginate, is designed as a method of printing tissue cartilage. It’s released by Cellink, who later releases the INKREDIBLE 3D printer for bioprinting.
3D Printing: What’s Next?
3D printing has come a long way in the past 40 years, but there are so many applications that are still being discovered, so many opportunities that are still being realized. So where is 3D printing likely to go in the next ten years or so?
Many additive manufacturing leaders see health care as one of the industries most likely to be changed in the future when it comes to 3D printing. Already, we’ve seen organs that have been lab-grown through 3D printing. Bioprinting is becoming more and more common. This could be life-saving for those on long wait lists hoping for an organ transplant. It’s also become a boon for dentists, who are able to use 3D printing in dental restoration. According to Scott Dunham, Vice President of Research at SmarTech Analysis, “In dentistry, you could, in theory, have a great case for converting 80% plus of the means of production to an additive technology.”
3D printers could also help us address the climate crisis in coming years. As we’re able to make more through 3D printers, we’ll find a shift towards renewable resources, lighter-weight materials, and better energy efficiency. Wasted scraps from overproduction will become a thing of the past as we move towards more precise 3D printing. And as 3D printing becomes more prevalent, industry leaders also predict lower energy costs overall.
For consumers, products are more likely to have room for customization and personal elements as 3D printing swells. 3D printing makes it easy and cost effective to add personal touches to products and add more individualization. Local manufacturing will also likely become the more popular choice, as manufacturing will be more accessible on a local level and it will be easier for consumers to support local manufacturers.
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