3D printing is one of the most revolutionary technologies of the 21st century. Giving everyone from engineers and doctors to DIY enthusiasts and small business owners the ability to transform virtual ideas into physical objects, it promises to change life as we know it.
If you don’t know your laser sintering from your Shapeways or your bioprinting from your RepRaps, read on. These are the milestones we’ve passed so far on the road to making 3D printing a reality!
The earliest breakthroughs
1800s: 3D printing doesn’t officially get started until the late twentieth century, but some of the ideas behind it date back a little bit further.
In 1859, a French “photosculptor” named François Willème demonstrates the world’s first “3D scanning” technology by using 24 cameras to simultaneously photograph subjects from different angles.
A few years later, in 1892, inventor Joseph E. Blanther is awarded a patent for a method of creating 3D topographical maps using a layering method — similar in concept to today’s 3D printers.
Both hint at the promise of 3D printing to come!
The real birth of 3D printing
1980: The first attempts at modern 3D printing are carried out at a time when most of us are still marvelling at owning our first regular printers.
The first patent relating to the technology is filed in May 1980 by Dr. Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute, describing a photopolymer rapid prototyping system. Kodama’s idea involves using vat of photopolymer material, exposed to UV light, in order to harden a part. Unfortunately, he never commercializes it.
The arrival of stereolithography apparatus (SLA)
1986: Chuck Hull invents stereolithography apparatus (SLA). This 3D printing technique refers to a method of printing objects layer by layer using a process in which lasers selectively cause chains of molecules to link together, forming polymers.
Hull goes on to go-found 3D Systems Corporation, which introduces the world’s first commercial 3D printing system, the SLA-1.
The world of selective laser sintering (SLS)
1987: Carl Deckard at University of Texas pioneers an alternative method of 3D printing, which turns loose powder into a solid, instead of Chuck Hall’s liquid resin process. Deckard’s approach to 3D printing involves using a laser to bind the powder together as a solid. His first machine is called “Betsy.”
It takes until 2006 until the first SLS printers are commercially viable, thereby opening up new opportunities in manufacturing.
Fused deposition modeling (FDM) is born
1989: S. Scott Crump, along with his wife and fellow inventor Lisa Crump, invents and patents a new additive manufacturing method called Fused Deposition Modeling. This technique involves melting a polymer filament and depositing it onto a substrate, layer by layer, to create a 3D object.
The idea for this new technology came to Crump a year earlier, in 1988, when he attempted to create a toy frog for his daughter using a hot glue gun loaded wit ha mixture of polyethylene and candle wax. After struggling to do it manually, he envisioned a way to automate the process and build the shape by creating a series of thin layers stacked on top of each other.
Crump later goes on to co-found Stratasys, which remains one of the most prominent additive manufacturing companies in the world today.
The birth of medical 3D bioprinting
1999: The use of 3D printed organs in surgery becomes a real thing when a lab-grown urinary bladder is successfully transplanted into a patient, using technology developed by the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine.
The artificial bladder is created by taking a CT scan of the patient’s bladder and then printing a biodegradable scaffold using the information. Cells grown using a tissue sample from the patient’s bladder are then layered onto the scaffold, before it is transplanted.
The RepRap revolution
2004: Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at the U.K.’s University of Bath founds the RepRap project, an open-source project which aims to build a 3D printer that can print most of its own components.
The idea is that this will democratize 3D printing, by expanding to technology to people all around the world — since friends will be able to print 3D printers for their friends.
The design of the first RepRap 3D printer, named “Darwin,” is released a few years later in March 2007. Other versions, including “Mendel,” “Prusa Mendel” and “Huxley,” follow in the years to come. The initial RepRap printers are named after famous evolutionary biologists, since the project is all about replication and evolution.
Printing on demand
2008: Shapeways, a 3D printing service, is launched in the Netherlands. A bit like RepRap, Shapeways makes 3D printing available to a wider audience.
Rather than giving people their own 3D printers, however, Shapeways lets users submit their own 3D files, which the company then 3D prints and ships back.
Shapeways rapidly expands to a factory in Queens, New York, and raises substantial venture funding. It also becomes a marketplace for 3D printed objects, which the company will then print on demand. Shapeways makes 3D printing accessible to a non-tech crowd, including artists, architects and other creative individuals.
3D printed prosthetics
2008: The first usable 3D printed prosthetic leg is created and used. It is printed “as is” without requiring additional later assembly. Today, a number of 3D printed prostheses have been created and used around the world.
Here comes Kickstarter
2009: Kickstarter launches. While not directly related to 3D printing, the crowdfunding website becomes a launchpad and money-raising platform for a large number of 3D printers.
While some of them crash and burn, others go on to establish themselves as major players in the industry.
To date, the most funded Kickstarter 3D printer project is 2014’s Micro, a consumer 3D printer supporting PLA or ABS materials, along with its own proprietary and standard filament spools. Asking for $50,000, its creators instead raise a massive $3,401,361.
The arrival of Makerbot
2009: Following the expiration of a key patent on FDM technology, Makerbot launches and helps bring 3D printing technology into the mainstream.
Building on the success of the RepRap dream, Makerbot makes open-source D.I.Y. kits for people who want to build their own 3D printers or 3D printed products. It has since sold over 100,000 such kits.
The company also creates online file library Thingiverse, allowing users to submit and download 3D printable files. Thingiverse becomes the largest online 3D printing community and file repository. Makerbot is acquired by the company Stratasys in 2013 for around $400 million.
3D printing cars and planes
2011: Anyone thinking that 3D printing is only about creating small objects gets a wakeup call when engineers at the U.K.’s University of Southampton design and 3D print the world’s first unmanned 3D-printed aircraft. The total cost comes in at under $7,000.
Not to be outdone, Kor Ecologic shows off Urbee, a prototype car with a 3D printed body at the TEDxWinnipeg conference in Canada.
Obama loves 3D printing
2013: You know that a technology has become mainstream when the President of the United States mentions it!
In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama praises 3D printing as having, “the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” The same year, The Big Bang Theory features an episode involving additive manufacturing. 3D printing is no longer exclusively about early adopters.
2015: Swedish company Cellink puts the first standardized commercial bio-ink on sale. Made from a seaweed-derived material called nanocellulose alginate, the bio-ink can be used for printing tissue cartilage.
Cellink’s first product costs $99 for a cartridge. Later that year, it also markets the $4,999 INKREDIBLE 3D printer. Between the two products, 3D bioprinting suddenly becomes more affordable for a wide range of researchers around the world.
3D printing is everywhere
2018: Whether it’s 3D printed houses, the possibility of 3D printing in space, or breakthroughs involving prosthetics, 3D printing is reaching its biggest audience yet — with more printers available than ever. Long may it continue!