The History of 3D Printing: Over 30 Years Old

3D printing may have become a buzzword these past few years, but it’s actually been around for decades. Since the 1980s, in fact. Here’s another fun fact: the majority of its users are between the ages of 25 to 34, younger than the technology itself. This is probably one of the reasons why people tend to think that this technology is so new. 

Another reason would probably be that it sounds much like science fiction. Printing on paper is one thing. Printing a car, a house, an organ?! How on earth did such technology come about anyway? Let’s take a peek into 3D printing history to find out.

3D Printing History: The Beginning

3D printing was first conceptualized in the 1950s when writer Raymond F. Jones described the technology in his story, “Tools of the Trade”, which was published in the Astounding Science Fiction Magazine (November 1950 issue). In the 1970s, the first patent that had a similar process to 3D printing – the Liquid Metal Recorder – was approved. 

Several years later, Dr. Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute developed a rapid prototyping technology that utilizes a layer-by-layer approach in manufacturing items. His technology involved photosensitive resin that is hardened using UV light. He published the findings of his experiment in April and November 1981. Unfortunately, there was not enough interest in his discovery which meant he was unable to get the necessary funding to acquire the patent rights. 

Four years later, a team of French engineers – Jean-Claude André, Olivier de Witte, and Alain le Méhauté – also tried their hand in developing this technology, specifically stereolithography. However, there weren’t a lot of applications for the technology at the time. Because of a lack of funding, they were unable to get a patent in 1984 which forced them to abandon the project. 

Who invented 3D printing?

While the idea of 3D printing can be traced back to the 1950s, the acknowledged inventor of this technology is one that we haven’t mentioned yet. Around the same time that the French team was working on their project, across the ocean, someone was working on something similar. 

who invented 3d printing
Charles Hull

While working for a tabletop and furniture manufacturer, Charles Hull wanted to find a way to create small, custom parts faster. Upon his suggestion, the company provided him with a lab to find a way to use photosensitive resin and UV light in creating a part layer-by-layer.

Three weeks after the French team applied for their patent, Charles Hull was able to do the same. He named his process stereolithography (SLA). The patent was issued in 1986, the same year he started his own company called 3D systems. Two years later, the company introduced the first 3D printer – the SLA-1. 

who invented 3d printing
Image by Invent.org

When was 3D printing invented?

If you’re asking when was 3D printing invented, the usual answer would be 1986. This is because the first 3D printing technology – stereolithography – was invented at this time. But there are other 3D printing processes that were invented as well.

For example, an undergraduate at the University of Texas, Carl Deckard, got a patent for selective laser sintering (SLS) in 1988. His SLS 3D printer, which he called Betsy, wasn’t able to print anything more than chunks of plastic. But it was deemed a proof of concept. 

when was 3d printing invented
FDM or fused deposition modeling, another type of additive manufacturing technology, was also discovered around the same time. The patent was submitted to the government by Scott Crump who co-founded Stratasys in 1989, one of the leading companies that produce high precision 3D printers. The patent was finally issued in 1992.

Why was 3D printing invented?

The main reason why 3D printing was invented was to create a rapid prototyping process, particularly for custom parts. As we’ve mentioned earlier, Charles Hull worked for a manufacturing company. His frustration with the length of time it took to create small, custom parts motivated him to search for a solution. 3D printing technology was the solution he came up with. 

French engineers had the same purpose. Alain le Méhauté, one of the engineers, worked in Alcatel and wanted to be able to create complex parts. Their research and combined knowledge led them to the idea of creating a rapid prototyping device.

3D Printing History: 1990-2010

Once the patent was issued to Stratasys was issued, the development and emergence of new technologies involving additive manufacturing quickly went from zero to sixty. While the general public still wasn’t aware of what 3D printing was, there were still plenty of people ready to get this technology to the next level. 

Between the years 1993 to 1999, companies focused on contributing to this field started to sprout everywhere. In Europe, for example, EOS GmbH was established. The company created the first EOS “Stereos” system which uses 3D printing technology for industrial prototyping and production. Z Corporation was able to obtain MIT’s inkjet printing technology, allowing them to create Z402.

This machine was able to use starch- and plaster-based materials and a water-based liquid binder to create 3D models. Some companies, such as Solidscape, created new CAD tools that are necessary for additive manufacturing.

It was also during this time when the first 3D printed organ – a bladder – was made. 

the first 3d printed organ
The scientists at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine was able to print the structure of the organ before coating it with the actual cells of a patient. Then, surgeons were able to successfully implant the organ with its newly generated tissue into a patient. The idea was that this new organ won’t be rejected by the patient’s immune system simply because it is made up of the patient’s own cells.  By 2000, the first 3D-printed kidney was produced.

first 3d printed kidney
Over the next few years, 3D printing became the newest buzzword and trend in manufacturing. More commercial machines were becoming available. New applications were being discovered. By 2006, on-demand manufacturing for industrial parts became the new reality. This led to the creation of a new type of business – one that provides online 3D printing services to the public. 

That’s not all. Innovations were not limited to companies. 3D printing marketplaces started popping up, allowing people to collaborate and share their knowledge and creations with each other. Open-source DIY kits also became available, allowing more and more people to design and build their own printers and products. 

3D Printing Today

Looking back, it’s difficult to comprehend how far this technology has evolved. Today, new 3D printing materials are being discovered/invented every day. 3D printed objects are not limited to industrial parts. These days, you can print your own jewelry, house, car, or prosthetic.

3D Printed Building in Dubai
3D Printed Building in Dubai

Additive manufacturing is making its way into more industries, helping companies become more efficient. The innovations brought about by this technology have been groundbreaking. And it doesn’t look like the evolution of 3D printing is stopping any time soon. Our future is certainly looking much brighter. 

After all, there’s no limit to our imagination. And if you can imagine it, it’s only a matter of time before you can print it.

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