History of 3D Printing 2017-07-02T13:40:50+00:00

Brief History of 3D Printing Technology – A Timeline

Let’s take a look back at the history of 3d printing and how we got to where we are today.  The history of 3d printing goes back further than you may expect – back 30 years ago to 1987.  To get to where we are now is a story of people, patents, and a groundswell of excitement and expectations.  Although we could be much more granular in presenting a history of this technology, we’ve distilled it to some significant times and dates.  And although 3d printing wasn’t officially invented until 1987, we can see elements of the ideas and conceptual foundations stretching back further.

1964 – Arthur C. Clarke predicts a “replicator machine”

Arthur C. Clarke was a British futurist and science fiction writer, who made many prescient predictions about future life – including wireless smartphones and the internet.  While he never called it “the internet”, he said the following about how life for a young person would be different (in 2001):

He will have, in his own house, not a computer as big as this, but at least, a console through which he can talk, through his local computer and get all the information he needs, for his everyday life, like his bank statements, his theater reservations, all the information you need in the course of living in our complex modern society, this will be in a compact form in his own house … and he will take it as much for granted as we take the telephone.

Another of his predictions was a “replicator machine”, which he claimed was the “invention to end all invention”, wherein someone at home could duplicate any product or item he or she wanted.  This doesn’t exactly describe today’s 3d printers, but it marks one of the first times 3d printing was predicted.

Arthur C. Clarke also predicted that cyborg monkeys would be human servants.   Like any futurist, he got plenty of things wrong as well.

1966 – Star Trek airs, conceptualizing the “replicator” in popular culture

Although the term “replicator” was not used until Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987, the original Star Trek in 1966 features a food synthesizer machine that was capable of replicating food and drinks by arranging and assembling molecules.  In addition to creating food, the “replicator” was used to print Starfleet uniforms, spare parts for the ship, and other miscellaneous objects. This is significant as the first major introduction of the concept of a 3d printer in popular culture.

1986 – SLA (Stereolithography) Patent Issued to Chuck Hull

Chuck Hull is the inventor of 3D printing.  He coined the term “stereolithography” and received a patent titled “Apparatus for Production of Three-Dimensional Objects by Stereolithography” in 1986.  The invention led to Hull starting a company called 3D Systems, which today is one of the largest publicly traded 3d printing companies around.  Stereolithography is still a common method of 3D printing today and in 2014 Chuck Hull was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

1987 – SLA – 1 machine released

The SLA – 1, released by 3D Systems, is the first 3d printer manufactured for commercial sale and use.   Unsurprisingly, it used stereolithography technology, which is what “SLA” stands for – and uses computer controlled light to harden liquid photopolymers layer by layer.  Doesn’t exactly look like the 3d printers you see today.

1987 – SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) patent issued to Carl Deckard at University of Texas

At University of Texas, Carl Deckard, pioneered a different method of 3d printing – one that sintered loose powder to become solid instead of curing liquid resin like Chuck Hull’s stereolithography method.  Deckard’s method was known as “selective laser sintering”, or SLS, and like stereolithography, is also used very commonly still today.  The method basically uses lasers to zap powder to bind them together as a solid form.  The first machine is named “Betsy”.

1989 – Stratasys co-founder filed a patent for FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling)

S. Scott Crump was the co-founder of Stratasys, which is now – alongside 3D Systems – is one the large publicly traded 3d printing companies.  FDM, which stands for “fused deposition modeling” is one of the more ubiquitous 3d printing technologies seen today.  The expiration of this patent helped lead to the explosion of desktop 3d printers like Makerbots.  However, many desktop 3d printer companies use the acronym, FFF, or “fused filament fabrication”, because “FDM” is trademarked by Stratasys.

As you can see, quite a bit of the foundations of contemporary 3d printing – including patents for three of the main fabrication methods – were laid decades ago.   It should be noted that none of the companies and people pioneering these technologies in the eighties called it “3d printing”.  Instead, they referred to it as additive manufacturing.  Even though many of the 3d printing techniques were already patented, the technology took years to improve and was far from being a democratized, accessible, or anything close to a universally adopted technology.  The beginnings of when 3d printing began to go mainstream began with another academic project in 2005.

2005 – Rep Rap Project founded by Dr. Adrian Bowyler at the University of Bath in England

The Rep Rap project was an academic exercise that sought to create a self replicating manufacturing machine – capable of making most of it’s own components.   However, the project is completely self replicating.  Parts such as microcontrollers, steppers, and sensors cannot be printed.  This project has gone through many iterations, with open source plans posted online for free.  The Rep Rap project is undoubtedly a watershed moment opening the doors for a wave of inexpensive desktop 3d printers to come.

2008 – Shapeways launched

Shapeways is a 3d printing service and marketplace based in Eindhoven, Netherlands.  This online service allows users to submit 3d files, which Shapeways will in turn will 3d print an object from the file and ship back.  Shapeways has since its founding in 2008 expanded with a factory in Queens, New York and has raised over $70,000,000 in venture capital investment.

Shapeways offers a very wide range of materials, offering a 3d printing option for individuals and companies worldwide.  In addition to being a 3d printing service, they are also a marketplace for buying 3d printed products that are hosted on their platform.  You can browse their shop and once you buy a product, they will print the product and ship it to you.  There is no need to hold an inventory.  In addition, you have the ability to design products or figurines and host them on Shapeways for other customers to buy.

2009 – Makerbot launched

In Brooklyn, NY, Bre Pettis, Adam Mayer and Zach Smith founded Makerbot in 2009.  Makerbot took some of the open source foundations built upon by the Rep Rap project and created their own 3D printer kit for sale.  Since the companies humble beginnings, the company has sold over 100,000 3d printers.  In this image, Bre Pettis is holding one of the first models, the Thing-O-Matic.

Makerbot is significant because it is one of the most visible companies at the forefront of the democratization of 3d printing.  Suddenly, excitement and speculation grew around the growing affordability of 3d printing – giving many hobbyists, professionals, and makers the ability to make what Makerbot claims as “almost” anything.

Makerbot also created Thingiverse, which is an online file library from which you can download 3d printable files, or submit your own designs for download.  The company was acquired by Stratasys in 2013 for around $400 million.

2011 – FormLabs founded

Amidst a slew of new desktop 3d printing companies using the same FDM, or FFF style of 3d printing, Formlabs went a different route – creating a desktop 3d printer based on 3D Systems’ expiring patent for stereolithography, which used a proprietary acrylic based UV-curable resin.  Founded at MIT by Max Lobovsky, David Cranor, and Nathan Linder, Formlabs introduced their first printer – the Form 1 – on Kickstarter raising over $2 million by backers.  They accomplished something pretty rare in terms of Kickstarter projects.  They shipped their product on time!

Because the Form 1 uses stereolithography instead of fused deposition modeling, the surface finishes, resolution, and detail are superior to what a traditional desktop 3d printer is capable of.

2013 – 3D Hubs Launched

Whereas Shapeways was a centralized 3d printing service, 3D Hubs launced as a decentralized 3d printing service following the sharing economy, or AirBnB model.  Prices for 3d printers were becoming more and more affordable – but still with a price tag in the thousands of dollars, many people simply wanted access to a 3d printer without having to purchase one.   And since more and more people had 3d printers at home, many of these printers were being underutilized.  3D Hubs was a platform that was built to connect people that needed access to 3d printers with those who had idle 3d printers at their home or office.

Anyone with a 3d printer could sign up on the platform as a “hub” and begin to make money printing other peoples designs.  3D Hubs has grown significantly since its founding and as of writing this, 3D Hubs has 32,000 3d printers in 150 different countries.

2013 – Maker Faire features “3D printed village” to showcase new 3d printing companies

2013 – President Obama mentions 3D printing in State of the Union Address

2013 was a year in which public awareness and interest in 3d printing was reaching a high point.  A result of this interest was an influx of press and media stories written about 3d printing technology – and intense speculation on how 3d printing could change applications that would disrupt several industries.

2013 was probably the year when someone said to you “have you heard about this 3d printing thing?”

During this time of excitement and speculation,  plenty of people were making some pretty ambitious predictions about the future of 3d printing – but one moment made it clear that 3d printing had hit the mainstream – when President Obama mentioned 3d printing in the 2013 State of the Union address.

2013 – Big Bang Theory television episode about involving 3d printing

The Big Bang Theory is a really popular show – with tens of millions of people tuning in to new episodes.  When the show had an episode that revolved around 3d printing and using a 3d printer, it was a significant moment of 3d printing getting a massive spotlight in popular mainstream culture.  Was it as significant as the Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan show?  Probably not.  But it was still a notable moment in 3D printing history.

2014 – 3D printing stocks hit all time high

Although we’ll talk about 3d printing companies more later on, 2014 was also the year that the 3d printing bubble in the stock market burst.  3D Systems (DDD) and Stratasys (SSYS) are the two main publicly traded 3d printing companies.  For instance, 3D Systems was trading around $10 a share in 2012 and by January 2014 was trading at nearly $100.   The stock price then fell to around $7, but has since recovered to about $20.  Why has the stock price fallen since 2014?  The answer is most likely inflated expectations.  Many people were making aggressive speculations based upon bullish predictions around a consumer 3d printing market, which never fully materialized.

2014 – Carbon3D launched

In 2014, a TED talk made a big splash in the 3d printing community.  In it, Joseph DeSimone spoke about the launch of Carbon3D, a new 3d printing company – which had pioneered a new proprietary 3d printing technology called CLIP, which stands for “continuous liquid interface production”.  CLIP technology is similar to sterolithography in that it cures a photopolymer resin – however, unlike stereolithography, CLIP is continuous instead of layer by layer.   The result of this is much faster 3d printing – in some cases up to 100 times faster.  Given that printing speed is a significant limitation to current 3d printing technology, this was an exciting development.

During this TED talk, the company founder did something pretty brave and impressive.  He actually demonstrated a part printing during the talk.  And in minutes, the part was finished 3d printing!

Carbon also has another pioneered a unique pricing model.  Their printers are only available through a subscription model – you cannot buy them outright.

2014 – Smithsonian creates first 3d printed portrait of President Obama

This was a historic first.  Official presidential portraits have been made for every president, but President Obama was the first 3d scanned and 3d printed bust.  The portrait was taken by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies and premiered at the White House Maker Faire.

2014 – “Print The Legend”, a documentary on 3D printing is released

Someone made a movie about 3d printing! And it came out at a pretty interesting time too.  The documentary followed around some of the key people and companies we’ve talked about here during a period of significant growth for the 3d printing industry.

2016 – HP enters 3D printing space with Fusion Jet 3D printer

Everyone wondered if and when larger traditional printing companies would enter the 3D printing space.  In 2016, HP took the leap and introduced the Fusion Jet 3D Printer.  Although the machine is pricey and geared more towards commercial and enterprise use, the printer features improvements in speed and in full color printing.

2016 – GE Additive launched

In 2016, General Electric, one of the largest companies in the world, made a very big acquisition.  GE bought metal 3d printing companies Arcam and SLM for $1.4 billion.  Why? Because GE found that metal 3d printing of airplane parts could save massive amounts of money, be stronger, and more efficient.  More than other industries, the aerospace industry is finding very real opportunities for 3d printing applications that are giving companies like GE a significant competitive advantage.