The History of 3D Printing

Do you think of 3D printing as a brand new, cutting edge technology? Well, you are half right. While it is true that 3D printing is cutting edge and has only entered the mainstream in recent years, the history of 3D printing actually dates back more than three decades.

In fact, the first recorded design for rapid prototyping (RP), the technology that 3D printing is built upon, was developed by a Japanese lawyer, Dr. Hideo Kodama, in 1980.

Rapid prototyping is simply any technique that uses computer aided design (CAD) programs to quickly develop a 3D model. The term rapid prototyping is often used interchangeably with additive manufacturing. Unlike traditional prototyping techniques that could take many weeks to complete, rapid prototyping technologies allow businesses to receive their prototype within hours of creating the design.

The Breakthrough and the Rise of 3D Systems

first commercially available 3D printer

The original SL-1 printer in the National Inventors Hall of Fame (image from

The first big breakthrough in 3D printing took place in 1983 when Charles “Chuck” Hull invented the first stereolithography apparatus. Hull would go on to found 3D Systems, one of the highest grossing 3D printing companies in operation and a company that we are proud to be a re-seller for. Hull came up with the idea for his machine while he was working on lamps for UV-curable resins and realized that the process could be used to create bonds in the resin that would build objects layer by layer.

Remarkably, the first inkjet printer had just been invented in 1976. There was only a period of eight years separating the invention of the first machine capable of printing in 2D and the first machine that could print real, tangible objects in 3D.

In the early days, Hull and 3D Systems found a niche with the automobile market. During this period, American automobile manufacturers were actively trying to create nicer, more technologically advanced vehicles. The problem that they were encountering was that traditional manufacturing methods weren’t able to give them the quick turn around on designs that the automobile companies wanted. 3D Systems offered the manufacturers a viable solution to their problem. 3D Systems also produced prototypes of metal parts and short-run manufacturing for metal parts.

After just four years in development, the first commercial 3D printer, known as the SLA-1, was completed in 1987 and, after undergoing extensive testing, was ready for market in 1988.

The Innovations Continue

Meanwhile, a number of other inventors were working on similar technologies. Carl Deckard, for example, filed a patent in 1987 for a process called Selective Laser Sintering, which is similar in process to stereolithography.

In 1989, Scott Crump filed for a patent for Fused Deposition Modeling technology, which works by extruding plastic layer by layer. Crump went on to co-found Stratasys (a company that we are also a re-seller for), and received the patent for FDM in 1992. Although Stratasys still holds the patent for FDM, this is one of the most common forms of 3D printing and many other companies have adopted the techniques of FDM under a variety of different names, such as fused filament fabrication (FFF) and plastic jet printing (PJP).

The term 3D printing was first used toward the beginning of the 1990s when MIT trademarked a procedure that it called 3-D Printing, abbreviated as 3DP. Since then, MIT has granted several organizations the permission to use this process.

For the next several years, inventors continued to refine the technology, typically with an emphasis on industrial applications. As the technology improved, 3D printers became more and more refined. Today, printers can produce objects faster, cheaper, and better than ever before. Even with the improved technology, however, we are in a stage of rapid advancement, with better models just on the horizon.

Now that we can create accurate, usable parts from a printer that will comfortably sit on our desktops at a reasonable price point, we are truly approaching a time when it is conceivable that 3D printers could soon be a common household appliance.


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