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A History of 3D Printing- It’s Older than you think

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Unbeknown to many 3D printing in nearly 40 years old. Yes, I’ll say that again 40 years old. The new addictive technology phenomenon that is seeing a global boom has been around since the Ronald Reagan era.

Let’s take a closer look at the timeline and advancements that have brought us to where we are today.

3d printer

In 1981 Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute published a document about a system that used photopolymers that could function with rapid prototyping, progressively printing up in layers a solid printed model, each layer being a cross-sectional slice within the model.

Does that sound familiar?

With this on-board in 1984, Charles Hull made a significant breakthrough by creating and inventing stereolithography.

In essence, stereolithography uses digital data to develop 3D models that then results in a physical object.

Photopolymer is the critical element of stereolithography; it is an acrylic-like material.  The way it transpired was to UV laser beam the liquid, moulding it around the shape you desired and turning it into solid plastic to the design framework you had set-up. At this time this was big news especially to inventors in the 80’s.

Leading to many prototypes being developed in a variety of industries due to giving inventors the ability to go from an idea on a sketch-pad into actual physical form. Thus giving them the ability to test theories which up until then had been just that, in the process saving vast sums of money on failed manufacturing test investment.

The first (SLA) machine was created by ‘3D systems’, Charles Hull’s company.  The company were able to design complex parts of instruments as like the saxophone played by Bill Clinton at the Arsenio Hall Show in 1992 to help showcase Hall’s invention. The technology enables layer by layer to fabricate the complex parts that made up the instrument in a fraction of the time it took to make by hand or standard manufacturing machines. That very same year another company DTM invented the first laser that could convert powder instead of liquid into mouldings like Hull’s company.

Although this was a breakthrough into a brave new world, is was far from without pitfalls and problems. Warping was common as it hardened and the machines themselves extremely expensive for home inventor usage, but the potential was there.  And here we are decades later with 3D print technology unfolding in front of our eyes becoming a multi-billion $ industry.

1999 and 3D Printing in the Decade that Followed

3D in its teens

As the Y2K buzz approached the first ever 3D-printed organ was implanted into a human.  Human Bladder scaffolds were created by the Wake Forest Institute and they used the cells of human patients to coat them to enable them to be regenerative. This was implanted into patients as the chances of their immune system rejecting them we almost zero as they were coated with their own cells.

In the medical fraternity this was when 3D printing had arrived and created a wave of excitement, in just a decade medical scientists had created:

A functional miniature kidney

Prosthetic Legs with parts

Bioprinted blood vessels using human cells

Implanted a bladder scaffold

They knew then that this technology was special but just how special?

Then 3D printing met Dr Adrian Bowyer’s RepRap Project in 2005.

In basic terms, the project was to design a printer that could print itself! Well almost, the theory was to get it to reproduce most of its own parts and components.

In 2008 they released ‘Darwin’, and the machine was capable of doing just that, opening up endless possibilities that inventors and creators could now, in reality, bring their drawings and imagination to life.

So we were in the mid-2000’s where the manufacturing industry had undergone a significant overhaul in its practices, and mass customisation was a buzzword.

In 2006, the first SLS machine hit the commercial market to great excitement and became commercially viable, paving the way to the massive demand for the manufacturing of industrial parts using the technology.

At the time Objet (now Stratasys) conceived a multiple print machine that could handle various materials so each created component could have different versions and material elements and properties.

The industry became super competitive and boundless breakthroughs occurred, it’s was indeed as exciting as it is now, but in hindsight just not as well-known due to the way media has changed and indeed social media highlighting the everyday breakthroughs in the industry.  This decade ended with collaboration, a co-creation if you like called Shapeways.

This was a 3D platform marketplace for designers to be able to communicate directly and receive feedback from consumers to then work on and alter and improve their products, with the icing on the cake being the launch of Makerbot who designed DIY packs for novice designers to get involved, pushing many inventors to the side in the process.

2011 until today – 3D printing at the top of Everest

3d Printing industry

Taking a look back it’s quite surreal, it almost feels like a movie, and we are the ones already in the future.

With 3D printers themselves becoming produced for the commercial market, the accuracy and cost of the machines have changed dramatically. Innovations are pushing the envelope like never before.  I wonder what Charles Hull is thinking about all of this as he approaches 80; maybe even he could never have dreamed of this.

The limitation of just plastic is gone, we can now print a wedding ring made of gold! We have created an unmanned aircraft and an electric car prototype that can consume 200 miles to the gallon on a motorway, so the possibilities are now endless and somewhat uncertain.

Beyond what I have just mentioned one of the breakthroughs that have grabbed attention a rightly so is the usage of the technology to create affordable housing in the developing world.

And the medical world has seen significant advancements for people, now creating bone replacements, and robotic prosthetic arms and legs and helping to reduce battery size and increase capabilities, so the technology is not just being used for cool gadgets and toys, this is changing the human race for the better.

3D Today

Even by the time this is published there will have been further breakthroughs in areas around the globe. I wonder what the classrooms of the future holds, maybe kids will become world famous artists using a 3D printing technique never seen before.  Maybe dentists will be able to replace your teeth without a drill and make them exactly how you want them through a computer screen, only time will tell, but one thing is for sure at some stage if not already 3D printing will be a factor in all our lives.



David Blakey is a seasoned tech writer. He likes writing about computer gadgets, printers and other electronic devices. His current line of work is with Hottoner, an Australian supplier of brother hl-1110 printers.

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