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3D Printing History

Everyone keeps asking about the future of 3D Printing but to see the future you have to know the past...

So there's what you were looking for! An article that chronicles the most popular techniques and processes derived from Stereolithography invention and other disrupting events in 3D Printing History until the present; you can see it either on the interactive timeline or get a more detailed from the resume below.

In the end, it does not matter the file's settings, printing accuracy, speed or filament, we all are doing history right at this moment, we try to make things better by using 3D Printing technologies.

..Actually, first attempt to create solid objects layer-by-layer-like took place in late 1960s, at Battelle Memorial Institute, thanks to an experiment that involved intersecting two laser beams of differing wave length in the middle of a vat of resin, attempting to solidify the same photopolymer resin at the point of intersection.

Another significant attempt of the coming invention occurred next decade, in late 1970s. A series of patents on solid photography was granted to Dynell Electronics Corp.; the invention involved the cutting of cross sections by computer control, using either a milling machine or laser, and stacking them in register to form a 3D piece.

But it was Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute (Nagoya, Japan) among the first to invent the single-beam laser curing approach; in October 1980, he published a paper titled Three-Dimensional Data Display by Automatic Preparation of a Three-Dimensional Model that outlined his experiment in detail. According to many sources, Kodama’s research was perhaps the first evidence of working additive manufacturing (AM) techniques in the world. Next year, November 1981, Kodama published a second paper titled Automatic Method for Fabricating a Three-Dimensional Plastic Model with Photo Hardening.

Also it was known in a Review of Scientific Instruments that Kodama described a key element of the stereolithography process when mentioned three basic techniques he used to create plastic parts by "solidifying thin, consecutive layers of photopolymer".

Considered the formal birth of Additive manufacturing in August 1984, it was Charles Hull (co-founder and chief technical officer of 3D Systems Inc.) the one who applied for a U.S. patent titled Apparatus for Production of Three-Dimensional Objects by Stereolithography, which was granted in March 1986. Same month, Hull founded his manufacturing company in collaboration with Raymond Freed; Charles Hull is also recognized for co-creating the STL file format, most common 3D printing file format in the present.

Selective Laser Sintering technology invention by Carl R. Deckard took place in 1986. Next year, 1987, 3D Systems shipped its first beta units to customer in North America, right before finalized production units started shipping in April 1988. These were the first commercial additive-manufacturing system installations ever.

Anyway, there was not always regards and credibility for Hull. In 1989, DuPont announced the development of its Somos 1000 Solid Imaging System, a technology similar to 3D Systems’ Stereolithography Apparatus. Considering their similarities, DuPont petitioned the U.S. Patent Office in September 1988 the reexamination of Charles Hull 1986 patent. Seven months later, the Patent Office told 3D Systems that it had rejected all rights in Hull’s patent. This was nearly the time DuPont decided the releasing of its Somos system, which occurred about June 1989; however, in late 1989, the U.S. Patent Office reversed its decision considering 3D Systems produced strong evidence to support the claims in Stereolithography patent, though it was required the adding of new language that narrowed its scope.

Meanwhile in Europe, 1989 saw the formation of EOS GmbH Electro Optical Systems in Germany, founded by Drs. Hans Langer and Hans Steinbichler. The EOS systems are currently been recognized around the globe for their 3D printing industrial prototyping and production applications. EOS sold its first Stereos System in 1990. The company’s direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) process resulted from an initial project with a division of Electrolux Finland (which was later acquired by EOS).

So, it can be said that Additive Manufacturing first emerged in the 1980s decade with Stereolithography (SL) technolology;the SLLA-1 was the first AM System on sale and the precursor of the SLA-250 Machine, though both SLLA-1 and SLA-250 Models were particularly expensive.

Introduction of other Additive Manufacturing technologies

Starting from Fused Deposition Material (FDM) technology invention in 1989 by S. Scott Crump (Co-founder of Stratasys), there was the time when other Rapid Prototyping technologies emerged in order to give more cost-effective methods and materials:

Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) creation was granted to Helysys in 1991, while Cubital Ltd. was introducing Solid Ground Curing (SGC) the same year.

Later in 1993, Soligen starts the commercialization of a technique earlier invented and patented by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which was called Direct Shell Production Casting (DSCP).

1994 was the year when Model Maker Wax 3D printer from solid scape (then called Sanders Prototype) became available, as did new systems from Japanese and European companies. One of the new Japanese systems from Meiko targeted mainly at the makers of Jewelry, though Meiko ended its manufacturing business in 2006, as most of the companies that poped up during early development of Rapid Prototyping.

Another worth-mentioning technique invention is the one developed in 1997 by AeroMet. It was called Laser Additive Manufacturing (LAM), enabled the manufacturing of aerospace titanium alloys parts, at least until the close down of AeroMet bussines in 2005.

In 1999 Objet Geometries starts announcing the first inkjet 3D printer based on its PolyJet Printing patent, an amazing process that enhaces the manufacturing of multiple colors and transparency levels by using photopolymers. Objet Geometries was merged with Stratasys since 2012.

Other Groundbreaking launches:
  • A Large-Scale 3D Printer by Materialise: Mammoth Stereolithography Machine (2000).

  • The world's first desktop version of a 3D printer by Solidimension (2001).

  • First Electron Beam Melting (EBM) System by Arcam (2003).

  • First laser-sintered, metal-based powder machine by EOS GmbH (2003).

  • First commercially available multiple-color 3D printer by Z Corp (2003).

At this point, it also can be noticed that competition between companies in the Rapid Prototyping market made prices going down as there were more options around; industrial customers looked for more improvements in manufacturing time, and the most important: cut costs.


RepRap Project was born under a single but meaningful philosophy: Build the first self-replicating printer of general use for humanity. This is how RepRap created a new disruptive manufacturing model, a factory with the potential to create more factories.

Dr. Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering who was working at the University of Bath in England, conceived the RepRap concept in 2004, but it was until the next year when his first At-home 3D printer was released.

RepRap obtained the GNU GPL license. This license allows you to copy, study, distribute and improve your designs and source code, hence the community around RepRap project can exploit all their knowledge by creating improvements and evolving over time.

Under this premise, in 2008 RepRap officially launches Darwin, satisfying all the features its creators were looking for from the beginning. Two years earlier, The Fab@Home project brought a hackable/low-cost multi material 3D printer to the public (2006).

Open Source projects gave rise to a radical change in the manufacturing industry. We were all astonished when watched one of these rapid prototyping machines in action; we studied them, exploited that knowledge and started a long way on the Maker's path through DIY (Do it yourself) or DWO (Do it with others) projects; geeks invented their own programs, and collaborative projects were founded in order to follow this passion from Open source perspective. The ecosystem was growing.

Then, when FDM patent expired, the bubble burst. The market was flooded with DIY 3D printer kits, all based on the open-source RepRap model. This is when the term "personal 3d printers" was introduced, therefore many companies were born to quickly positioning themselves as sellers of home 3D printers.

Some examples of companies that took advantage of this:

  • Makerbot

  • Lulzbot

  • Tevo

  • Prusa

A similar thing happened when stereolithography and Laser Sintered process patents expired; people and organizations were expected to take advantage of these opportunities to duplicate these technologies. However, the ASTM International F42 Committee on Additive Manufacturing Technologies has achieved an impressive progress.

The 3D Printing Materials expands to metals and Web 3D Printing Platforms were launched

Back in 2008, Shapeways is launched in the Netherlands as the first 3D printing service dedicated to the 3D printing community. The platform enables users to advertise their products, offer their own files and printing services for sale to other members of the community; this led the community to expand further out of their cities and even start growing internationally.

Moreover, a new variety of materials could offer the improvement of products and prototypes. In 2007, Objet Geometries introduced Connex500 machine, the first system in its class capable of creating printed parts using different ranges of hardness in order to simulate material Properties and textures.

In 2008 a new site for maker's community was founded. Thingiverse is online, another community site focused under the free standard, and one of the biggest platforms at the present, seeking to consolidate itself as a web platform in which users exchange designs, all this under GNU General Public License, a Creative Commons license that protects the copyright of its creator.

New 3D printing methods are born and companies start to expand.

In April 2010, Renishaw plc (UK) opened a dental manufacturing plant based on cobalt-chromium DMLS. On the other hand, Shapeways (the Netherlands), an online supplier of consumer-oriented products, began offering AM pieces made of glass. Also in April, Stratasys began delivering shipments of HP branded FDM machines.

In 2010, 3D Systems announced two new SL resins for its laser-based systems: Accura PEAK, a material similar to polycarbonate, and Accura CeraMAX, a rigid and ceramic material. Also in May, DSM Somos launched NeXt, an ABS-like photopolymer that is durable and water resistant.

Followed by 2011, when CRP Technology (Italy) introduced its new generation of carbon fiber-based material, Windowform XT 2.0 ., while Materialize announces new material with high stiffness and impact resistance the same year.

3D Systems Acquires Service Provider Accelerated Technologies (Austin, Texas) and announced a new VisiJet e-stone Material for specific dental applications. Also, a trial of 3D systems vs. Envisiontec for patent infringement is presented. (2011)

December 2012. Organovo Holdings (San Diego, California) and Autodesk (San Ragael, California) announce a collaboration to create the first 3D bio-printing software. The first test is done by bio printed tissue in the NovoGen MMX bio-printer of Organovo's; Ultimaker (Netherlands) announces its fully assembled 3D Ultimaker printer, which was once just a DIY KIT.

Glass Material; 3D printing goes for the electronics, air and aerospace industries

2014 First 3D Printer in space. It would be the first printer used in space to help reduce the costs of future missions. The device will have withstand lift-off vibrations and will stably operate in a closed environment within the space station; NASA chose Made in Space start-up to create a printer the size of a microwave oven.

September 2015: first 3D printer Glass. Researchers at MIT were able to create the first machine capable of extruding glass layer by layer, quite similar to the FDM process; To achieve an efficient extrusion, the nozzle must be subjected to a temperature higher than 1000 ° C; also the printer must have a heating system for each phase during the materialization process.

February 2015: 100% Printed Jet Engines. Australian researchers at Monash University, with the help of CSIRO staff from Deakin University, were able to print two Jet engines, and one of them is being displayed at the Avalon Victoria Air Show; the aerospace industry keeps interested in the process of printing parts because of the reduced lead time, the lighter weight of parts and lower production costs.

August 2016: Nano Dimensions prints PBC and electronics. Nano Dimensions (founded in 2012) announced its DragonFly 2020 Machine, a 3D printer that was delivered to an Israeli defense company. It was expected to help building and testing new hardware in a few days; the Israeli company gave positive feedback on the capabilities of the printer, making efficient the printing of electrical circuits.

3D printed Thermoplastic material is used to manufacture a rocket in 2016. The Atlas V Rocket was built by ULA, and is the first space vehicle that adopts 3D printing in the production of thermoplastic components; ULA's, located in Decatur, Alabama, builds the rocket from earth with the help of Stratasys Fortus 900mc Production, a 3D printer capable of creating a wide variety of tooling and mechanical parts.

The implementation of Stratasys in the part's manufacturing of the Atlas V Rocket manages to save $ 1 million annually compared to traditional methods of manufacturing, and the flexibility of the design along with the unique range of materials benefits in the optimization of parts that can help to resist the extreme conditions to which the rocket is subdued in the launches.


So far from the time of Charles Hull; now we can not only have access to different technologies/techniques of 3D printing, we can also manufacture our prototypes in different materials, and even achieve high quality products from a 3D printer. Describing 3D Printing in the present can be:

" Layer by layer, 3D printing holds the promise of cheap manufacturing, but also the promise of mass customization [....] this might even mean production of products or replacement of parts on household level; 3D Printing holds the promise to co-create revolutionary products, systems and applications".

  • A.J.M. van Wijk. 3D Printing with Biomaterials: Towards a Sustainable and Circular Economy. (2015)

For now, prototyping, customized products and small production runs will keep leading the commercial usage of 3D Printing in the short term, while new niches develop.

Tell me what you think will be the new trend or the new historical change, and what you would do to achieve it. Who knows? I might have to ask for an interview with you a few years from now.

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