A Vibrant History of 3D Printing (2023)

8 Mins read
  • April 2023 Update
Above: Charles Hull is known as the Father of 3D Printing/Image Credit: 3D Systems

The revolutionary 3D printing technology is rapidly spreading and being adopted across industries. But where did this technology come from and how did it become so important? Read on to learn more about the glorious history of 3D printing. From its first technology (Stereolithography) to a wide range of technologies, printing with a wide range of materials, used in countless applications, to impacting the global manufacturing sector.

History of 3D Printing

Late 1970s to End of 1980s

When discussing the history of 3D printing, we must begin in the late 1970s, even before the first technology, stereolithography, was invented. Technology is much older than you think. It may appear to be a relatively new technology, but it is not. The first inkjet printer was manufactured in the late 1970s, which marked the beginning of 3D printing. The technology created quite a stir, but nothing significant could be accomplished in the next half-decade.

Dr. Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute in Japan published a paper on the Rapid Prototyping (RP) system in 1981. He envisioned a system in which layers of a model were printed on a platform and the final product was built layer upon layer. He was supposed to file for a patent later, but Dr. Kodama was unable to do so, and the application expired after its one-year deadline. The RP system was a great ideological breakthrough, but it had no practical application. Many researchers were still looking for the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

Parallel to Dr. Kodama’s effort, Alain le Méhauté, a French researcher, became interested in the rapid prototyping system while working for Alcatel in the early 1980s. He discussed such a prototyping system with his colleagues, but they were uninterested in his ideas. But, determined to pursue his ideas, he shared them with Olivier de Witte, who was working with a subsidiary of Alcatel at the time. Olivier was immediately intrigued, and his background in lasers meant that he was familiar with materials that could be cured/hardened by the application of laser energy.

They then pitched their idea to Jean-Claude André, who worked at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). On a personal level, Andre was intrigued by the concept, but the CNRS rejected their funding proposal.

The trio did, however, file for a patent, but they were forced to abandon the project when their funding ran out.

Around the same time, an American engineer named Charles Hull invented the Stereolithography Apparatus (SLA) in 1983, the year the first 3D printed part was created. He first patented the technology in 1984.

Charles Hull received the patent in 1986 and the following year co-founded 3D Systems, which is now one of the largest 3D printing organisations. The world’s first commercial 3D printer, the SLA-1, was introduced the following year, in 1987.Below is a brief overview of the first 3D printing technology.


Above: First 3D Printed part ever through Stereolithography /Image Credit: 3D Systems

Stereolithography is the first 3D printing process which was commercialised. The process involves namely four components:

1. A Laser beam – Source of Laser to solidify the resins
2. Elevator – For movement of Vat
3. Vat – It contains the material for creating the 3D product
4. Photopolymer Resins in liquid state – Material used in Stereolithography

The laser source flashes a Laser beam to solidify the semi-liquid Photopolymer resins. The Laser beam moves in X-Y axis across the surface of the resin. It moves across as per the 3D design of the model from the software. Once a layer of the resin is solidified, the elevator moves down lowering the Vat in the Z direction and now the laser traces the next layer. This process continues until the product is completely traced out. The elevator is now moved up to remove the product from the Vat.

In lay man’s language, we can say that the process is used to basically to slice a product into numerous layers and place those thin slices one over the other to form the final product.

The 3D product is created as the layers are formed one above the other. Due to the complex nature of the process, the products sometimes need support structures. These are mainly required for products with undercuts or overhangs. Like every process, this process too requires post-processing for removing the support structures and smoothening the walls. But comparatively the processing is far too less in Stereolithography.

For more details you can also check out our dedicated article on how

1990’s to 2000

Selective Laser Sintering
Above: World’s First Selective Laser Sintering Machine/Image Credit: DTM Corp

The second stage in the history of 3D printing brings us to the decade of the 90s. Stereolithography was the first 3D printing method which paved the way for the technology to grow and prosper. Although the technology was patented in 1984, it took another 6-8 years to build the first 3D Printer. In 1992, 3D Systems actually built an SLA Machine to present it to the world and let them see the power of 3D printing. By the same time, a start-up, DTM Corp invented the world’s first Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) Machine.

These machines were charting unexplored frontiers but still, a lot of years of research had to be put in it to make it commercially viable. These machines were slow to operate and still required some amount of manual intervention. The research went on until the 2000s.

Late 2000’s to 2010

History of 3D Printing
Above: RepRap project by Dr. Adrian Bowyer/Image Credit: RepRap

The third stage to understanding the history of 3D printing starts from the new century. Almost 20 years had passed since the first paper was published and technology was patented but still, the technology was in its infancy. This was the time for the technology to grow and showcase its true potential.

In 2000, a new breakthrough was achieved. First 3D printed organ was implanted in a human body. The scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, 3D printed the synthetic building blocks of human bladders. This newly generated tissue was then implanted in the human body.

This was the decade when the Bio-Printing took center stage and came up with exciting and prospective inventions. Scientists were eager to understand more and more about the technology and use it in the medical field due to its main feature of customization.

This was a golden period in the development of 3D printing in the medical application. Many start-ups started creating medical applications like printing a functional miniature kidney, building prosthetic limbs and other complex parts. Scientists even bio-printed the first blood vessels.

In 2005, the open-source movement took over and Dr. Adrian Bowyer’s RepRap Project launched an open-source initiative to manufacture a 3D Printer which could print many basic products. Its 2008 upgrade was a self-replicating printer. Suddenly, people everywhere had access to printers and they could print tangible products from just their ideas. The research was still going on and, in 2006; the first commercially viable SLS printer was manufactured and received widespread acceptance and demand from industries.

The creative innovations were effectively clubbed together by Shapeways, which was a marketplace where designers could display their designs and receive feedback on the same. Another company emerged in this technology boosting environment, MakerBot. They provided Do-It-Yourself open-source printers. This was the time when even regular designers could afford the 3D Printers to test their designs. The Entry barrier was breached and designers everywhere could now get their hands on this technology.

2011 – 2020

3D printed heart
Above: World’s first 3D printed heart created from a human tissue completely matches all the anatomical properties of a human patient, using a 3D printer/Image Credit: Tel Aviv University

The current decade has been one of the most vibrant. It forms an important part of the history of 3D printing. As the days are passing by, the advances in 3D Printing are only following an upward trend and will continue to do so for the coming decade. 3D printers are available at most affordable rates and the accuracy is getting better with each iteration. This will continue year on year. The applications have crossed all limits which Charles Hull might have dreamt about. From plastic products to body organs, from automobile to aerospace, from manufacturing to jewellery and to the latest being Food Printing. We have also heard of 3D printed offices and 3D Printed cars and aircraft.

2020 Onwards

2020 saw the world reeling from a global pandemic, the scale never seen or experienced before by the working generation. In all the doom and despair, 3D printing was a bright spot. While the world came to a standstill, people stuck at home and companies shuttered down, governments all over the world allowed 3D printing companies to run. Mostly because it was the only technology that could quickly churn out essential parts like face shields, face masks, nasal swabs, ventilator splitters, etc.

As 3D printing proved to be a boon to the remotest of places get access to cheap products, it also was extensively talked about and was featured in some of the biggest media outlets. This turned out to be a boon for the technology which was not really growing fast enough. The coverage made 3D printing a household name and end-users started exploring this revolutionary technology.

The aftermath of the pandemic proved to have a positive impact on 3D printing and more and more companies were eager to learn and even adopt the technology into their manufacturing workflow. Manufactur3D did a survey of the Indian 3D printing industry leaders and you can check out what they said but the overall sentiment was positive.

Key Milestones in the History of 3D Printing

1984: First ever 3D printing technology patented by Charles Hull – Stereolithography Apparatus (SLA)

1987: First commercially available Stereolithography Apparatus (SLA) 3D printer built in 1987. This machine used laser beams to solidify the photopolymer resins to form the final product

1993: ZCorp invented the Binder Jetting (then known as Zprinting) 3D printing technology

1999: 3D Printed organs are the craze among scientists. Scientists research on the medical applications of this technology

2002: A fully functional 3D Printed miniature kidney which is able to filter blood

2005:  Dr. Adrian Bowyer’s RepRap Project launched an open-source initiative to manufacture a 3D printer which could print many basic products

2006: The first commercially viable SLS printer was manufactured and received widespread acceptance and demand for industries

2008: Darwin, a relaunch of an upgraded version launched in 2005, a self-replicating printer is manufactured

2008: Shapeways, a marketplace where designers could display their designs and receive feedback on the same. It was an environment of co-creation where artists, animators, architects, etc. joined in the community

2008: For the first time a fully functional 3D printed prosthetic leg is with a socket, foot, knee, etc.

2008: MakerBot releases the first Do-It-Yourself open-source 3D printer kit called Cupcake CNC

2011: World’s first 3D printed Aircraft is created. This unmanned aircraft was flight tested to be successful

2011: i.materialise 3D prints gold and silver for the first time

2012: Doctors and engineers 3D Print a prosthetic lower jaw and implant it in an 83-year old woman

2013:  3D Hubs, an online 3D printing service platform is founded. (Update: 3D Hubs is now acquired by Protolabs and rebranded as Hubs)

2014: Amazon, the online retail giant launches their 3D printing store

2015: Desktop Metal was founded with the launch of office-friendly metal 3D printer

2016: Local Motors manufactures OLLIE, a self-driving 3D Printed minibus. The Minibus is controlled by IBM Watson that talks to the customer.

2017: The world’s first 3D printed bridge developed by BAM Infra opens to cyclists in the Netherlands

2018: World’s first 3D Printed Human Cornea & Researchers at University of Minnesota 3D Print a Bionic Eye Prototype

2019: World’s first 3D printed heart with human tissue

2020: Supporting in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic by 3D printing face shields, face masks, nasal swabs, ventilator splitters, etc.

2021: If 2021 can be remembered for anything representative of the industry, it should be about the craze of SPACs (special purpose acquisition companies). More than 10 3D printing companies including Markforged, Velo3D, Shapeways, etc., got listed in the year by going through the SPAC route. Sadly the stock price of most companies fell sharply after listing.

2022: Sharp rise in the Binder Jetting technology usage. Desktop Metal acquired ExOne, the binder jetting leader, and consolidated its hold on the technology, the market and that customer base.

About Manufactur3D Magazine: Manufactur3D is an online magazine on 3D printing. which publishes the latest 3D printing news, insights and analysis from all around the world. Visit our 3D Printing Education page to read more such informative articles. To stay up-to-date about the latest happenings in the 3D printing world, like us on Facebook or follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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Manufactur3D is an Indian Online 3D Printing Media Platform that reports on the latest news, insights and analysis from the Indian and the Global 3D Printing Industry.
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