A Brief History of 3D Printing

We usually think of 3D printing as something innovative, and it’s hard to believe that the technology is more than 30 years old.

The first predecessors of modern 3D printers appeared at the beginning of the 1980s. That was when Japanese scientist Dr. Hideo Kodama developed a rapid prototyping system that involved photopolymers. The main working principles were the same as in modern 3D printers: a resulting object was made on a layer-by-layer basis according to a model.

The main breakthrough in this technology was the invention of stereolithography by Charles W. Hull in 1984. It allowed for a reproduction of the objects based on digital images using 3D printers. The system also utilized a photopolymer: an acrylic-based liquid. It could be instantly solidified under the UV laser, becoming a plastic object that would take a needed shape. It was a breakthrough for developers who would be able to simplify the prototyping process and cut the costs.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Hull’s company named 3D Systems Corporation (which is still one of the industry leaders) started producing the devices that work using laser stereolithography (SLA) with photopolymers. Around that time, a startup named DTM patented the selective laser sintering (SLS) technology invented by Carl Deckard of the University of Texas. This method utilizes sintering a powder instead of curing a photopolymer resin. The third technology, named Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) was developed at the same time period by S. Scott Crump of Stratasys. It’s still used mainly in basic models of 3D printers. Obviously, the first machines weren’t perfect: the material was often deformed after solidifying. Despite its faults and costs, the technologies such as SLA obviously have huge potential that is still being researched.

The decade after that was highlighted by several important moments based on using 3D printing in medicine. The first one was the transplantation of a 3D-printed bladder. The organ was covered with the patient’s cells which decreased the chances of rejection to a near-zero level. Sometime later a fully functioning smaller 3D copy of a kidney was announced, but later the claim was later refuted. Even nowadays the scientists think that 3D printed fully functional complex internal organs such as kidneys or liver that are ready to be transplanted are years or even decades away. Various researchers have produced a model of kidneys, but the main difficulty was creating a cardiovascular system of small and large blood vessels since an organ can’t function without it when put inside the body of a patient. Nevertheless, there were serious successes regarding producing simple organs, cartilages, and blood vessels that were 3D printed using only human living cells as material. And a lot of progress was done regarding bone implants. The research in this direction is going at a rapid pace. The examples include living tissue 3D bioprinting and the developments in the world of complex prostheses that don’t require assembling.

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The future of 3D printing seems to have two different paths. The first one is high-tech research that implies the development of expensive 3D printing systems that can be used for producing complex and highly specialized parts. This direction is under constant development, and the results are utilized in the aerospace industry, automotive manufacturing, medicine, and jewelry. A lot of this research is classified and is under NDA.

The other path implies the development of basic 3D printers functionality which made them more affordable and accessible to general audiences. The process included integration of open technologies, widening the list of used materials, improving speed, and cutting the costs. The main role in this was played by the RepRap project that was launched by Dr. Adrian Bowyer. The main idea of the project was the development of a 3D printer that can produce its own parts. This way, the device would be self-replicating, available to the masses, and not expensive, which would make 3D printing affordable for home use.

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The prices of 3D printers continue to plummet thanks to the price war. The records of the cheapest available 3D printers are often broken. The number of new developments is impressive and they are introduced constantly. And one would be pressed to find a field where 3D printing is not used yet. At the time of the introduction of the first 3D printers, it was difficult to imagine how many limits will be pushed by this technology after only a couple of decades. Some call it the new industrial revolution. And it’s only just the beginning.