3D printers have broken into the mainstream. Take a look at the evolution of 3D printing and find out how the technology became what it is today.
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The Evolution of 3D Printing: From a Pipe Dream to Mainstream

3D printers have broken into the mainstream. Take a look at the evolution of 3D printing and find out how the technology became what it is today.

Ile Kauppila

April 11, 2023

Today, 3D printers and additive manufacturing have broken into the mainstream. 3D printers churn out parts at engineering companies, create tools and prosthetics at hospitals, and turn fantasy into reality on the Hollywood silver screen.

But the machines weren’t always like this. 3D printing has come a long way in its four decades of history. If you looked at the earliest machines today, you might wonder how they ever became as popular as they are.

Let’s take a look at the evolution of 3D printers, where they are now, and what the future has in store for the technology.

Evolution of 3D Printing
Evolution of 3D Printing

Low-Resolution Beginnings

The first machine identifiable as a modern 3D printer was invented in 1981. Dr Hideo Kodama develop an early version of a stereolithography (SLA) 3D printer that hardened photosensitive resins with UV light.

Unfortunately, Dr Kodama didn’t get the recognition he deserved. His employer wasn’t interested in the technology and Dr Kodama failed to secure a patent for it.

In 1986, Charles Hull, often dubbed the father of 3D printing, designed an SLA system of his own. He secured a patent and, in 1988, went on to found 3D Systems, releasing the SLA-1 printer the same year.

Around this same time, fused filament fabrication (FFF) technology was developed under the name of fused deposition modelling (FDM). More technologies soon followed, such as selective laser sintering (SLS).

In these early days, 3D printers were mostly demonstration models consigned to universities’ and engineering companies’ research and development labs. The machines were slow (compared to modern 3D printers) and the prints they produced were low-resolution and often low-quality.

Yet, it wouldn’t be right to say there was no 3D printer market at all. The aforementioned SLA-1, for example, was a commercial machine. Companies were exploring 3D printing, but due to its inherent limitations at the time, they were used only for creating rough product prototypes.

Hence, 3D printing became synonymous with “rapid prototyping.”

Although new technologies were developed and existing ones advanced, things stayed much the same for a decade. It would take until the turn of the millennium that 3D printing would come to its own.

The Floodgates Open

As the 2000s began, several things came together just right to allow 3D printing to take off. First of all, 2006 saw the release of the first commercially available SLS 3D printer. This technology nearly single-handedly changed the landscape for on-demand manufacturing.

But perhaps more significantly, in 2005, Dr Adrian Bowyer kickstarted the RepRap Project. Often dubbed the most significant 3D printing project ever, RepRap resulted in an open-source, freely available 3D printer that could be produced to make more copies of itself. 

RepRap – Humanity’s first general-purpose self-replicating manufacturing machine

This machine paved way for practically all current commercial desktop 3D printers.

Around the same time, the patents handed to FFF technology expired. This resulted in an explosion in 3D printing technology — and created some unwarranted hyperbole.

“What happened 10 years ago, when there was this massive hype, was there was so much nonsense being written: ‘You’ll print anything with these machines! It’ll take over the world!’” Richard Hague, professor of additive manufacturing at the University of Nottingham, told The Guardian.

Of course, 3D printers didn’t take over the entire world. But the technology did start taking over the world of manufacturing.

Innovation Reigns

Today, 3D printing is an established technology used across practically all industries. It’s still used for prototyping, helping engineering firms design new products that are lighter, stronger, and more durable than traditionally manufactured ones. 3D printers can produce complex geometries — like hollow or lattice structures — out of high-performance, engineering-grade that are impossible to achieve by machining or injection moulding.

Yet, technological advancements have turned 3D printing into a fully-fledged production-capable manufacturing method. Automotive and aerospace manufacturers use both thermoplastic and metal 3D printers to produce engineering-grade components. 3D printing is also used to make components for such wind turbines and oil and gas installations, and thanks to NASA’s efforts, 3D-printed heat exchangers have landed on Mars. 

Another area where 3D printing has come to its own is healthcare. SLA 3D printers like Formlabs, enable small companies to produce detailed, innovative medical devices. Meanwhile, SLS 3D printers can produce high-grade implants and cosmetics, enabling people to move and enjoy life again.

Over the past few years, SLA printers have also become staple dental clinic appliances. Armed with 3D printers and scanners, dentists can create cheaper and more comfortable dental appliances in hours and offer better care for their patients.

Advancing technology and innovation is also taking 3D printers out of the R&D labs and factory halls and bringing them to the public’s wider consciousness. Many people now run their own hobbyist-grade 3D printers, but even those who don’t are aware of the technology.

They’ve definitely seen 3D-printed props and costumes in the latest blockbuster movies. For example, many of the most popular Marvel superheroes — from Iron Man to Black Panther — have donned 3D-printed gear to entertain the viewers.

Then there are also the unusual one-off projects that regularly make headlines. Just to mention a couple, BigRep 3D printed an entire motorcycle, while 2021 saw the installation of the world’s first metal 3D-printed bridge in Amsterdam, created by MX3D.

As a further testament to 3D printing’s prevalence and significance, it is now being taught in schools, from Year 1 to universities. Additive manufacturing features in the British government-sponsored plan to turn the UK into a world leader in 3D printing. Meanwhile, universities are increasingly establishing programs that use and focus on 3D printers. For example, the University of Nottingham operates the Centre for Additive Manufacturing.

Where Do We Go from Here?

There’s no question about it — 3D printing has broken into the mainstream, at least in terms of manufacturing. The pipe dream from 40 years ago has turned into reality.

But the full potential of 3D printing has still not yet been realized.

3D-printed housing is an upcoming application that is showing great promise. Giant 3D printers can extrude layers of cement to create the walls of a house, and many such structures have already been built. For example, Germany’s first 3D-printed home was declared fit for residents in 2021.

Germany´s first 3D printed house

The house-printing technology isn’t yet perfected. Some may not like the rough wall textures and the materials can certainly use improvement. But the fact stands — we’re likely to 3D print more and more houses in the future.

Another fascinating area is 3D printing food. After all, the functional principle of an FFF 3D printer is quite close to icing a cake. Chefs and engineers are already working together to 3D print confections. In the future, they may even be able to 3D print meat.

Speaking of meat, how about 3D printing human organs? Research teams from around the world are already printing living human tissues, such as vascularized tissue. The technology is currently in its infancy, but with more work, it may be possible to print cheap, perfectly individualised organ implants from the patient’s own cells.

All of this may sound to you like the overblown 3D printing hype we saw 10 years ago. But this time, the excitement may not be baseless. Additive manufacturing’s viability is now firmly established and we have a much better idea of what it is capable of.

There are still obstacles left, to be sure. Regulations — especially in construction and medical fields — may take time to adapt to these new technologies. And every technological step forward will present three new problems for engineers to solve.

Yet, we’ve come this far and the pace of development shows no signs of slowing down. Who knows what we’ll be 3D printing 10 or 20 years from now?

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