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3D Printing History: A Complete Timeline of Additive Manufacturing Technologies

Imagine being able to create almost anything you can think of – parts for machines or even art – just by pushing a button. That’s the exciting world of 3D printing, an invention that has become a vital tool for making things today.

It started as an idea in stories and movies, but now it’s a way to make objects, from rocket parts for space travel to tools for doctors.

Join us as we look at 3D printing history. How did it start? How does it work now? How could it change the way we make things in the future?

When was 3D Printing Invented?

3D printing’s roots began with the inventive efforts of Dr. Hideo Kodama. In 1981, he laid the foundation for additive manufacturing.

Dr. Kodama, working at the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute, developed a system for creating three-dimensional objects through a layer-by-layer approach using photosensitive resins.

Although his photosensitive resin layer work didn’t immediately lead to a commercial product, it ignited a spark that would grow into the 3D printing technology we know today. But it was Chuck Hull who filed the first patent for 3D printing in 1984.

The History of 3D Printing: An Evolving Narrative

Printing in 3D, a technology synonymous with innovation and creativity, is not just a recent phenomenon. Its roots extend back much further than you may think.

1940s-1970s: The Imaginative Beginnings

In the 1940s, 3D printing emerged not in a laboratory but in science fiction. Murray Leinster’s 1945 short story, “Things Pass By,” envisaged a device that remarkably resembles modern 3D printers. Leinster wrote about a constructor that used “magnetronic plastics” for fabricating articles from scanned drawings, a process that echoes the modern computer-automated manufacturing process.

Similarly, in 1950, Raymond F. Jones introduced the idea of a “molecular spray” to create items in his story “Tools of the Trade,” published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine.

The 1970s saw Johannes F Gottwald obtain a patent for the Liquid Metal Recorder, a significant step toward making 3D printing a reality. U.S. Patent 3596285A, granted in 1971, described a continuous inkjet technology using metal powder capable of forming and remelting metal fabrications. This innovation was a precursor to today’s additive technologies, which deposit layers of material to create three-dimensional objects.

The 1980s: A Decade of Pioneering 3D Printing Innovations

The 1980s were a dynamic period in the history of 3D printing, in which this technology transitioned from theoretical concepts to tangible, groundbreaking developments. Significant strides in additive manufacturing technologies led to the filing of pivotal patents laying the foundation for the 3D printing revolution.

Stereolithography (SLA)

In 1984, Charles (Chuck) Hull patented the Stereolithography process (U.S. Patent No. 4,575,330). This groundbreaking technology utilized UV light to cure photosensitive resin layers, creating solid structures from digital designs. Hull’s invention marked the birth of the first commercial 3D printing technology and introduced the concept of layer-by-layer fabrication, which is fundamental to modern 3D printers.

Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) or Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

In the late 1980s, Scott Crump, co-founder of Stratasys, patented the Fused Deposition Modeling technique (U.S. Patent No. 5,121,329, filed in 1989). FFF works by extruding thermoplastic materials through a heated nozzle, layer by layer, to form three-dimensional objects. FFF has become one of the most widely used 3D printer technologies today. It’s simple, reliable, and accessible.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

Another significant advancement in this era was the development of Selective Laser Sintering. Patented by Dr. Carl Deckard and Dr. Joe Beaman of the University of Texas at Austin (U.S. Patent No. 4,863,538, filed in 1986), SLS uses a laser to sinter powdered material, binding it together to form a solid structure. SLS technology expanded the range of materials usable by 3D printers, including plastics, metals, and ceramics.

These additive manufacturing innovations represented significant technological breakthroughs and a shift from traditional manufacturing methods to more versatile, efficient, and creative solutions.

The 1980s set the stage for the 3D printer to evolve from a rapid prototyping tool to a production technology. It was significant in influencing the aerospace and medical industries.

The 1990s: Significant Strides in 3D Printing

The 1990s marked a period of remarkable growth and diversification in the history of 3D printing and additive manufacturing process applications. Major technological advances occurred, and the filing of significant patents expanded the capabilities and applications of 3D printers.

Advancements in Stereolithography (SLA)

Building on Charles Hull’s pioneering work, the 1990s witnessed further developments in SLA technology. The introduction of more sophisticated UV lasers and improved photosensitive resins enhanced the precision and speed of SLA printers, broadening their use in various industries.

The Emergence of FFF

After its invention in the late 1980s, FFF technology rapidly evolved in the 1990s. Stratasys, co-founded by Scott Crump, became a leading player in the 3D printing industry. FFF printers were known for their reliability and ability to print a range of thermoplastic materials. They were suitable for both prototyping and producing functional parts.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

SLS technology also underwent significant advances in the 1990s. The ability to print various materials, including powdered metal, greatly expanded the applications of SLS in the aerospace and automotive industries.

Introduction of Multi-Jet Modeling (MJM)

Another significant development in the 1990s was the introduction of Multi-Jet Modeling. This technology utilized inkjet printing mechanisms to deposit photopolymer materials layer by layer, offering improved speed and detail while creating 3D items.

3D Systems’ Innovations

3D Systems, founded by Charles Hull, continued to innovate in the 1990s, introducing new SLA machines and materials. These significantly broadened the applications of 3D printing technology.

The medical, dental, aerospace, and automotive industries began to use 3D printing more for prototyping and production. Custom medical implants and aircraft parts are notable examples of 3D printing’s growing role in these sectors.

The 1990s also saw the emergence of consumer-level 3D printing. The development of more affordable and accessible 3D printers brought this technology into the hands of hobbyists and small businesses. This first step into the mainstream led to the explosive growth of consumer 3D printing in the 21st century.

What happened to 3D printing in 1999?

In the history of 3D printing, 1999 saw a significant development, the first 3D-printed human organ for implantation. Scientists at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine engineered and implanted a 3D-printed synthetic scaffold in the shape of a human bladder. It used the patient’s own cells. This groundbreaking step in bioprinting and regenerative medicine showcased the potential of 3D printing in creating complex, living tissues and organs. ​

The 2000s: Revolutionary Advancements in the 3D Printing Computer Automated Manufacturing Process

This phase was significant in the history of 3D printing. There were further technological developments, the emergence of new printing methods, and the expansion of applications in various industries.

Refinement of Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF)

The early 2000s saw continuous improvements in FFF technology. It became more reliable and accessible for both commercial and personal use. The refinement in thermoplastic materials and the development of more precise heated nozzles enhanced the quality and diversity of printable items. Various patents in FFF technology helped advance desktop 3D printing and made it more accessible to the general public.

Advances in Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

SLS technology underwent significant developments. There were improvements in the precision and speed of the sintering process. Being able to print a wider range of powdered materials, including metals and glass fibers, broadened its industrial applications, notably in the manufacturing industry.

Emergence of Stereolithography (SLA) Variants

Innovations in SLA technology, such as more efficient UV lasers and advanced photosensitive resins, led to higher resolution and faster printing times. These developments cemented SLA as a critical tool for high-detail prototyping and production.

Growth of Material Extrusion Techniques

New material extrusion technique developments enabled using a broader array of materials, such as carbon fiber-reinforced plastics. These offered enhanced mechanical properties for more demanding applications.

Introduction of Multi-Material 3D Printing

Printers became capable of handling multiple materials simultaneously, a breakthrough that led to the creation of more complicated and functional parts.

The 2010s: Broadening Horizons in 3D Printing

This time witnessed unprecedented expansion in the history of 3D printing. It was a time of significant technological breakthroughs, wider accessibility, and an explosion of applications across various sectors. It was a turning point, as 3D printing evolved from a specialized tool to a mainstream technology.

During the 2010s, several key events and technological developments defined the progress of 3D printing. The main ones are outlined below.

Maturation of Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF)

FFF become the most widespread 3D printing technology, especially in consumer markets. The expiration of key patents led to a surge in affordable desktop 3D printers, democratizing access to 3D printing technology.

Selective Laser Melting (SLM) and Metal Printing

There was a significant advancement in metal 3D printing, particularly with Selective Laser Melting. This technique, capable of producing strong and complex metal parts, became invaluable in aerospace and vehicle manufacturing.

Rise of Multi-Material Printing

The 2010s also saw the development of 3D printers capable of printing with multiple materials simultaneously, including combinations of hard and soft plastics, which allowed for the creation of more complex and functional parts.

Progress in Bioprinting

3D bioprinting saw researchers print human tissues and organs, opening up new frontiers in medical science. Examples include creating skin for burn victims or printing layers of cells and even entire organs. Medical bioprinting could save many lives and reduce the wait for transplants. Because 3D printing is so exact, it has changed how we think about fixing damaged body parts.

Key Patents

A notable patent filed by Stratasys early in the 2010s involved a method for removable supports in FFF. The patent significantly simplified the post-processing of printed items. Another significant patent was related to the improvement of SLM technology. Improvements in the areas of powder management and laser efficiency were crucial for the production of high-quality metal parts.

There has also been a broadening of 3D printing applications:

  • Medical Industry: Custom 3D-printed prosthetics and implants became more widespread, offering personalized healthcare solutions.
  • Aerospace and Automotive: 3D printing became widely adopted for producing lightweight, complex parts, increasing efficiency and reducing waste material.
  • Consumer Products and Education: Affordable 3D printers spurred creativity and innovation in consumer products, education, and DIY projects, making 3D printing a household name.

The 2020s: Growth of 3D Printing

This decade has reflected a consistent trend of innovation and expansion in 3D printing. This trend saw technological breakthroughs that have enhanced the capabilities of 3D printing, further integrating it into various sectors.

Advancements in Additive Manufacturing Technologies

There has been much progress in additive manufacturing techniques, especially in speed, efficiency, and versatility. 3D printers capable of working with advanced materials like carbon fiber and glass fiber have become more prevalent, offering more durable printed products.

Expansion in Metal 3D Printing

Selective Laser Melting (SLM) and other metal 3D printing additive methods have seen considerable development. Notable improvements in precision and the ability to work with various metal powders are two examples. Such improvements have been particularly influential in industries with a high demand for complex, lightweight parts.

Sustainable Manufacturing and Reduction of Waste Material

There has been a growing emphasis on sustainability in 3D printing to reduce material waste and energy consumption. This evolution aligns with global efforts towards environmentally friendly manufacturing practices.

Emergence of Large-Format 3D Printing

The development of large-format 3D printers has opened up new possibilities in construction and architecture. Creating architectural components and even entire structures with 3D printing is now possible.

The 2020s have also seen the filing of new patents that are shaping the future of 3D printing:

  • Multi-material printing patents have enabled the simultaneous use of different materials in a single print job, enhancing the functionality and aesthetic of printed items.
  • Software and AI integration patents in 3D printing processes have improved the precision, speed, and usability of 3D printers.

Future of 3D Printing: Growth Projections and Emerging Trends

The future of 3D printing is shaping up to be dynamic and transformative. Recent market research indicates that we can expect further development in this field.

North America’s Market Dominance

In 2022, the value of the 3D printing market in North America was USD 6.83 billion, and projections show a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 21.4% from 2023 to 2030. This growth will result from substantial investments in advanced additive manufacturing technology by countries like the U.S. and Canada and significant R&D investments by government agencies like NASA​​.

Technological Advancements in FFF and SLS

FFF technology captured a significant market share in 2022, attributed to its ease of operation and suitability for creating durable, strong, and dimensionally stable parts. Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)/Selective Laser Melting (SLM) technologies will grow at a high CAGR due to their ability to produce high-quality metal components, which are increasingly sought-after in additive manufacturing to create complex geometries for rapid prototyping​​.

Expanding Applications in Various Industries

The automotive industry has been a significant adopter of 3D printing for rapid prototype applications and manufacturing custom products quickly. The aerospace industry uses 3D printers for manufacturing lightweight components. In healthcare, additive manufacturing is advancing in creating artificial tissues and muscles. Additionally, sectors such as architecture, construction, consumer products, and education will experience significant growth in the adoption of 3D printing technologies​​.

Emerging Trends and Technologies

  • Sustainability and Environmental Considerations: There is an increasing focus on making 3D printing more sustainable, reducing material waste, and optimizing energy use.
  • Integration with AI and Software Advances: The integration of artificial intelligence and advanced software in 3D printing is enhancing the precision and capabilities of printers, leading to more efficient and customizable production processes.
  • Expansion in Materials Science: The development of new materials, including advanced polymers and composites will further expand the capabilities and applications of 3D printers.

Key Takeaways

What is the history of 3D printing? It has come a long way since it was just an idea in the 1940s. It really began to take off in the 1980s and has since changed how we make things in all kinds of jobs, like making airplanes or helping doctors. What does the future of 3D printing hold? We’ll see more improvements in how 3D printers work and new ways to use them. They’ll be better for our planet, and they’ll even start to think on their own with artificial intelligence.

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1. Who Made the First Commercial 3D Printer?

The first commercial 3D printer was developed by Chuck Hull in 1984. He also invented the Stereolithography process and founded 3D Systems Corporation. His work helped pioneer the 3D printing industry, transforming the concept of layer-by-layer manufacturing into a tangible and commercially viable technology.

2. What is the Oldest 3D Printing Technology?

The oldest 3D printing technology is Stereolithography (SLA), invented by Chuck Hull in 1984. This technique involves curing photosensitive resin with UV light to build objects layer by layer. SLA marked the beginning of additive manufacturing technologies and the birth of modern 3D printing.

3. Is 3D Printing Older than the Internet?

3D printing is not older than the basic concepts and early forms of the Internet. While the foundational ideas of the Internet trace back to the 1960s, 3D printing began in the early 1980s with Chuck Hull’s Stereolithography. So, the Internet predates 3D printing by about two decades.

4. What Happened with 3D Printing in 2008?

In 2008, a pivotal development in the 3D printing industry occurred with the expiration of key Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) patents. As a result, desktop 3D printers became affordable, significantly democratizing access to the technology. The RepRap project, aiming to create a self-replicating 3D printer, also gained momentum, further boosting popularity and accessibility. Also, 2008 saw the first prosthetic limb printed using 3D printing techniques.