The History of 3D Printing – Where, When & How

For many, 3D printing is a relatively new concept that has only become more widely recognised and globally utilised in recent years. In actuality, 3D printing has been around since the 1980s and is quickly becoming one of the fastest growing industries. With the endless possibilities from producing anything from toys to tools, houses to organs, global industries are now realising the true potential of 3D printing.

In this post we’ll explore the history of 3D printing, who invented it and when. We’ll also take a look at where the industry is going in the years ahead.

Who invented 3D Printing?

Whilst it wasn’t until the early 1980’s that 3D printing truly began, the 1970s brought about an important time of theory surrounding the process. It was during this time that talks around the production of three-dimensional objects using additive layering began. This literally put the building blocks in place for the next decade.

In 1981, Hideo Kodama of the Japanese Municipal Industrial Research Institute was awarded the first 3D printing patent. Kodama invented two additive methods to fabricate three-dimensional plastic models using photo hardening thermoset polymers. The UV exposure area would then be controlled by a mask pattern or a scanning fibre transmitter.

Figures from Chuck Hull's 3D printer patent

From here it would only take three years before a team of French inventors; Alain Le Méhauté, Olivier de Witte, and Jean-Claude André would file their patent on the stereolithography method. Similar to Kodama’s invention, this method would rely on UV light to successfully harden photopolymers. Unfortunately, the French General Electric Company decided to abandon the patent application. They cited a lack of business prospects at the time. To their detriment, stereolithography is still widely used in 3D printing today.

From here, it would the only take three weeks before an American would benefit from the French team’s lack of foresight. Chuck Hull went on to successfully file his patent for his very own stereolithography fabrication system. Hull is now widely seen as the ‘Father of 3D Printing’. He defined his process as a “system for generating three-dimensional objects by creating a cross-sectional pattern of the object to be formed”.

Many would argue that Kodama was the original inventor of this system. It would be years before Hull created his stereolithography machine and coined the term. However, Kodama’s contribution to the 3D Printing industry cannot be understated as he did make another extremely important and original contribution to what we now know as the history of 3D printing. Hull was the key developer of the STL file format which is the digital file that can be read by 3D printers. STL files are still a crucial and widely recognised element used today in 3D printing.

Without the development of the STL file format, the face of modern-day additive manufacturing would be very different. It is the vital combination of both hardware and software that has made it possible to design a 3D model on computers and then to have the ability to accurately reproduce it using a 3D printer.

Types of 3D Printers

Since its inception, 3D printing has quickly expanded over the years, particularly during the 1990’s when a string of 3D Printing companies would emerge to push the tech forward. Each has significantly contributed to the development of the 3D printer, creating many different models with their own unique capabilities.

There are a wide variety of 3D printers, each named based on the technology they use to function. Here we have listed the 9 main types of 3D printer below:

  • Stereolithography (SLA) – This was the first 3D Printing method ever used and is still widely used today.
  • Digital Light Processing (DLP) – Similar to Stereolithography, DLP works with photopolymers but uses digital micromirrors laid out on a semiconductor chip. The printing speed is much faster when compared to its counterparts and is able to create much better resolution objects. It also uses less materials and therefore costs less.
  • Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) – This is one of the most popular technologies used within 3D printing as it allows the user to print concept models and final products with engineering-grade thermoplastics.
  • Electronic Beam Melting (EBM) – This method uses a power beam as its source but is much slower and more expensive to use.
  • Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) – Although not as popular as other methods, LOM is one of the most cost effective and fastest printing option.
  • Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) – SLS can use a wide variety of materials and is therefore popular for customising 3D objects.
  • Selective Laser Melting (SLM )- This tech is widely used in aerospace manufacturing and for objects with complex geometries.
  • Material Jetting (MJ) – Also referred to as wax casting, MJ is perfect for producing high resolution 3D objects.
  • Binder Jetting (BJ) – Whilst you cannot print high res objects with this tech, BJ printing allows you to print objects in full colour by bonding layers together.

The Future of 3D Printing

In recent years, 3D printers have become increasingly accessible with the price dropping and the quality constantly improving. What we can take from the last ten years alone as well as the entire history of 3D printing is that it won’t be stopping anytime soon. The technology will continue to advance at a rapid rate. It is predicted by many that soon every home, school and business will have a 3D printer as an integral part of their day to day life.

The reduction in time, cost and materials that 3D printing provides suggests that the commercial and industrial world won’t take long to integrate this tech into their manufacturing processes. The ability to create fast, sustainable and affordable tooling alone is more than enough of an incentive to persuade global companies to capitalise on this innovative resource.

As with any new tech, there is skill required to understand how best to use it. Training is needed even to use CAD software to even generate the correct files that will run in a 3D printer. But when we look back at the history of technology, even with tech such as computers we can see that it doesn’t take much time for society to embrace the new and quickly adapt.

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