The History of 3D Printing: When Was 3D Printing Invented?

When you first heard the words “3D printing” did you imagine a super futuristic technology, like something you would see in the movies?

While the term 3D printing may sound like something you’d expect to hear in a science fiction novel, the history of 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is longer than you might think. 

Keep reading to learn about the history of 3D printing, and our predictions on where we see this technology going in the future. 

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The History of 3D Printing in 3 Phases

1980s

The first documented iterations of 3D printing can be traced back to the early 1980s in Japan. In 1981, Hideo Kodama was trying to find a way to develop a rapid prototyping system. He came up with a layer by layer approach for manufacturing, using a photosensitive resin that was polymerized by UV light. 

Although Kodama was unable to file the patent requirement of this technology, he is most often credited as being the first inventor of this manufacturing system, which is an early version of the modern SLA machine.

Across the world a few years later, a trio of French researchers was also seeking to create a rapid prototyping machine. Instead of resin, they sought to create a system that cured liquid monomers into solids by using a laser. 

Similar to Kodama, they were unable to file a patent for this technology, but they are still credited with coming up with the system.

That same year, Charles Hull, filed the first patent for Stereolithography (SLA). An American furniture builder who was frustrated with not being able to easily create small custom parts, Hull developed a system for creating 3D models by curing photosensitive resin layer by layer. 

In 1986 he submitted his patent application for the technology, and in 1988 he went on to found the 3D Systems Corporation. The first commercial SLA 3D printer, the SLA-1, was released by his company in 1988. 

But SLA wasn’t the only additive manufacturing process being explored during this time. 

In 1988, Carl Deckard at the University of Texas filed the patent for Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) technology. This system fused powders, instead of liquid, using a laser.

SLS fabrication machines in the Fundació CIM warehouse

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) was also patented around the same time by Scott Crump. FDM, also called Fused Filament Fabrication, differs from SLS and SLA in that rather than using light, filament is directly extruded from a heated nozzle. FFF technology has gone on to become the most common form of 3D printing we see today.

These three technologies are not the only types of 3D printing methods that exist. But, they are the three that serve as the building blocks that would lay the groundwork for the technology to grow and for the industry to be disrupted.

1990s-2010

In the 90s, many companies and startups began popping up and experimenting with the different additive manufacturing technologies. In 2006, the first commercially available SLS printer was released, changing the game in terms of creating on-demand manufacturing of industrial parts.

CAD tools also became more available at this time, allowing people to develop 3D models on their computers. This is one of the most important tools in the early  stages of creating a 3D print.

During this time, the machines were very different from those that we use now. They were difficult to use, expensive, and many of the final prints required a lot of post-processing. But innovations were happening every day and new discoveries, methods, and practices were being refined and invented.

Then, in 2005, Open Source changed the game for 3D printing, giving people more access to this technology. Dr. Adrian Bowyer created the RepRap Project, which was an open-source initiative to create a 3D printer that could build another 3D printer, along  with other 3D printed objects.

RepRapBCN in the middle of Fundacio CIM warehouse showing the RepRap Machines to visitors. 

In 2008, the first prosthetic leg was printed, propelling 3D printing into the spotlight and introducing the term to millions across the globe. 

Then, in 2009, the FDM patents filed in the 80s fell into the public domain, altering the history of 3D printing and opening the door for innovation. Because the technology was now more available to new companies and competition, the prices of 3D printers began to decrease and 3D printing became more and more accessible.

3D Printing Now

In the 2010s, the prices of 3D printers started to decline, making them available to the general public. Along with the lowering prices, the quality and ease of printing also increased. 

The materials that printers use have also evolved. Now there are a variety of plastics and filaments that are widely available. Materials like Carbon Fiber and Glass Fiber can also be 3D printed. Some creatives are even experimenting with printing materials like chocolate or pasta

In 2019, the world’s largest functional 3D printed building was completed. 3D printing is now consistently used in developing hearing aids and other healthcare applications, and many industries and sectors have adopted the technology into their everyday workflow.

It’s safe to say that the history of 3D printing is still being written. New innovations and ideas are created every day. We’re very excited to see what’s next!

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