The History of 3D Printing

by Megan Ray Nichols 

3D printing has taken the world by storm in the last decade, but the technology isn’t as new as you might think. Believe it or not, the idea behind that desktop-sized 3D printer in your shop dates back to the 1980s. Let’s take a closer look at the history of 3D printing and where it might go in the future.

The 1980s — The Birth of 3D Printing

The first attempt at creating a 3D printer occurred in 1980. Dr. Hideo Kodama filed a patent in May of that year. This new 3D printer relied on photopolymer materials — liquids that could be printed, then exposed to light to harden into plastic. While this plan does sound like a viable one, Kodama never commercialized the design, and the 3D printing industry seemed dead on arrival.

In 1986, Chuck Hull invented the SLA-1 — the world’s first 3D printer that could build objects one layer at a time. In this case, the SLA-1 used lasers to cause selected chains of molecules to link together, forming plastics or polymers. The next year, Carl Deckard of the University of Texas came up with a different type of 3D printing — Selective Laser Sintering, or SLS. Deckard’s machine built an object out of layers of powder, then used lasers to melt the powder, hardening it into the finished plastic.

In 1989, S. Scott and Lisa Crump, a married pair of inventors, came up with the 3D printing technology that we know today — fused deposition modeling. The machine would melt a polymer filament and deposit it onto a substrate layer by layer until it finished the design.

3D printing had officially been born, but these early models lacked something — an easy and user-friendly way to design things for printing.

The 1990s — Computer-Aided Design

Designing something for a 3D printer might seem easy now, but imagine doing it without a CAD program at your fingertips. That’s what the early 3D designers had to do — create plans to build their objects without the assistance of a computer-aided design program. Commercial CAD programs became more readily available throughout the 1990s, though purchasing a 3D printer was still often too expensive for the home inventor.

The 90s were an exciting decade for the industry though. In 1999, scientists successfully 3D printed a bladder with human cells. Since the cells were taken from the organ recipient, there was little to no chance that the body would reject the transplant.

The 2000s — Visibility and Evolution

In 2000, scientists printed the first functioning kidney — but it wouldn’t be transplanted into a patient for another 13 years.

2004 saw the launch of the RepRap project, the world’s first self-replicating 3D printer. It was also the first time anyone had considered desktop-style 3D printers rather than large industrial ones. At this point, they were still too expensive for the average inventor, but the smaller size made them more affordable and more accessible.

Many of the advances in 3D printing during this decade were in bioprinting — advanced 3D scanning technology allowed medical professionals to create detailed scans of their patients. From there they could 3D print anything from prosthetic limbs to surgical implants.

The best thing that happened during this decade was in 2009, when the patents for Crump’s fused deposition modeling machine became public domain. From there, the industry took off, and it hasn’t stopped its climb yet.

The 2010s — Innovation and Industrialization

We weren’t kidding about the 3D printing industry’s vertical climb. It’s gone so high that there’s even a 3D printer on the International Space Station. The printer made its debut in 2014, but that isn’t the only thing that happened in the 2010s.

This decade brought us our first 3D printed car prototype, courtesy of Urbee. It might not look like much, but it was the world’s first 3D printed electric vehicle. Right now, 3D printing technology isn’t fast enough to mass produce these vehicles or any like it, but the prototype proved that the potential is there.

In 2011, students and researchers at Cornell University created a 3D food printer — our first step toward a Star Trek-esque food replicator!

While most desktop 3D printers today use melted plastic, that isn’t the only material you can handle anymore. You can 3D print anything from molten metal and glass to cement for building houses. Even standard polymer printers are getting an upgrade — separating the extruder head from the hot end of the printer utilizing a Bowden tube to reduce filament waste and improve production times.

The Future of 3D Printing

If you’re younger than 30, 3D printing is older than you are. With as far as this technology has come in the last 30 years, we can only imagine where it’s going to go in the next three decades. It might not be too long before we’re living in 3D printed houses or driving a car that rolled off the 3D printing assembly line the day before.

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