A brief history of 3D printing

3D printing was born 40 years ago and opened up tremendous possibilities for creating a variety of models in prototyping, dentistry, small batch production, customized products, miniatures, sculptures, mock-ups and much more. Who Invented the 3D Printer? What was the first 3D printing technology? And what was the first thing 3D printed? Let’s open the veil of secrecy over a huge number of interesting facts and stories about the emergence of technology. So, how it all began …

Stage 1: Birth of an idea

2.pngDr. Hideo Kodama, creator of the Rapid Prototyping System (1980)

A doctor at the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute, Hideo Kodama, has filed a patent application for a device that uses UV light to layer a rigid object out of photopolymer resin in layers.


In fact, he described a modern photopolymer printer, but he could not, within a year, as required by patent law, provide the necessary data for registering a patent and abandoned the idea. Nevertheless, in many sources he is called the inventor of 3D printing technology.


In 1983, three engineers – Alain Le Mejo, Olivier de Witt and Jean-Claude Andre of the French National Center for Scientific Research, in an attempt to create what they called a “fractal object”, came up with the idea of ​​using a laser and a monomer that is laser-driven turned into a polymer. They filed a patent application 3 weeks before the American Chuck Hal. The first object created on the device was a spiral staircase. The engineers called the technology stereolithography, and the patent was approved only in 1986. Thanks to them, the most famous file format for 3D printing is called STL (from English stereolithography). Unfortunately, the institute did not see the prospects for the invention and its commercialization, and the patent was not used to create the final product.

5.pngChuck Hull, creator of SLA laser stereolithography

At the same time, Chuck Hull worked for a company that made countertops and furniture coatings using UV lamps. Manufacturing small plastic parts for prototyping new product designs took up to two months. Chuck came up with the idea to speed up this process by combining UV technology and placing thin plastic in layers. The company gave him a small laboratory for experiments, where he worked on evenings and weekends. As a material, Chuck used acrylic-based UV-hardening photopolymers. One night, after months of experimentation, he was finally able to print a sample and was so elated that he walked home. Chuck showed his invention to his wife. It was an eye wash cup, more like a sacrament cup, according to the wife. It is considered officially the first 3D-printed model in the world and is still kept in the Hull family, and after their death will be transferred to the Smithsonian Research Institute in Washington.

6.pngHull Cup

Chuck Hull filed a patent application on August 8, 1984, and it was approved on March 11, 1986. The invention was named “Apparatus for creating three-dimensional objects using stereolithography.” Chuck founded his own company, 3D Systems, and in 1988 launched the first commercial 3D printer, the SL1.


8.pngKarl Deckard and Joe Beeman (right), inventors of SLS 3D printing (1987)

Another new way of 3D printing emerged around the same time as SLA printing. This is SLS selective laser sintering in which a laser is used to transform a free-flowing powder (instead of resin) into a solid material. Developed by Karl Deckard, a young undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, and his professor, Professor Dr. Joe Beeman. Moreover, the idea belonged to Karl. In 1987, they co-founded Desk Top Manufacturing (DTM) Corp. However, it will take at least 20 more years for SLS 3D printing to become commercially available to the consumer. In 2001, the company was acquired by Chuck Hull, 3D Systems.

9.pngScott Crump, developer of the FDM 3D printing method (1988)

Surprisingly, a simpler and cheaper way of 3D printing – FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) was created after SLA and SLS, in 1988. Aviation engineer Scott Crump became its author. Crump was looking for an easy way to create a toy frog for his daughter and used a hot glue gun: he melted the plastic and poured it into layers. This is how the idea of ​​FDM 3D printing was born, a technology of filament melting with plastic filament layer by layer. Crump patented the new idea and co-founded Stratasys with his wife Lisa Crump in 1989. In 1992, they launched their first serial product, Stratasys 3D Modeler.


Stage 2: 3D printing becomes available


The first assemblies built by 3D Systems and Stratasys were bulky and expensive. The cost of one was hundreds of thousands of dollars, and only the largest companies in the automotive and aerospace industries could use them. Printers had a lot of limitations and could not be widely used. The development of technology was very slow. Twenty years later, in 2005, the RepRap (Replicating Rapid Prototyper) project appeared – a self-replicating mechanism for rapid prototyping.


His inspiration was Dr. Adrian Bauer of the University of Bath in the UK. The goal of the project was to “self-copy”, to reproduce the components of the 3D printers themselves. In the photo, all the plastic parts of the “child” are printed on the “parent”. But in fact, a group of enthusiasts led by Adrian were finally able to create a budget 3D printer for home or office use.

The idea was quickly taken up by three technologists from New York and opened a company for the production of desktop FDM printers – MakerBot. This was the second turning point in the modern history of 3D printing.


In parallel, other technologies were being developed. Among them, bioprinting can be distinguished. Thomas Boland of Clemson University patented the use of inkjet printing to 3D print living cells, making it possible to print human organs in the future. Research in this area is carried out by dozens of companies around the world.

Another important application of the new technology was the creation of prostheses, first conventional and then bionic. In 2008, the first printed prosthesis was successfully transplanted into a patient and allowed him to return to his normal life.


Another important milestone was the emergence of open source print files on the Internet. Sites http://www.thingiverse.com, http://www.myminifactory.com and many others contain both free and paid 3D printing files. Users share models on the Internet and print them themselves.

Stage 3: 3D printing today

In recent years, 3D printing has become available to the mass consumer: the prices of printers have dropped significantly, and their use has become more convenient. Photopolymer 3D printers print detailed models with high precision and resolution. The number of users is growing, including due to a huge community of enthusiasts who are ready to help newbies. This is facilitated by the availability of ready-made files for 3D printing and the availability of software for creating models.

3D printing is already becoming a standard solution in such industries as dentistry, jewelry, orthopedics, in other industries, implementation is in full swing. The prospects are endless – from building houses to neurosurgery, from chocolate printing to metal printing.

Author: Alexander Kornveits, an expert in the field of additive technologies, founder and CEO of Tsvetnoy Mir

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