You may have heard of 3D printing being heralded as the future of manufacturing. And with the way the technology has advanced and spread commercially, it may very well make good on the hype surrounding it. So, what is 3D printing? And who came up with it?
The best example to describe how 3D printing works comes from the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. In that fictional futuristic universe, the crew aboard a spaceship uses a small device called a replicator to create virtually anything, as in anything from food and drinks to toys. Now while both are capable of rendering three-dimensional objects, 3D printing isn't nearly as sophisticated. Whereas a replicator manipulates subatomic particles to produce whatever small object comes to mind, 3D printers “print” out materials in successive layers to form the object.
Historically speaking, the development of the technology began in the early 1980s, even predating the aforementioned TV show. In 1981, Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute was the first to publish an account of how materials called photopolymers that hardened when exposed to UV light can be used to rapidly fabricate solid prototypes. Though his paper laid the groundwork for 3D printing, he wasn't the first to actually build a 3D printer.
That prestigious honor goes to engineer Chuck Hull, who designed and created the first 3D printer in 1984. He had been working for a company that used UV lamps to fashion tough, durable coatings for tables when he hit on the idea to take advantage of ultraviolet technology to make small prototypes. Fortunately, Hull had a lab to tinker with his idea for months.
The key to making such a printer work were the photopolymers that were stayed in a liquid state until they reacted to ultraviolet light. The system that Hull would eventually develop, known as stereolithography, used a beam of UV light to sketch out the shape of the object out of a vat of liquid photopolymer. As the light beam hardened each layer along the surface, the platform would move down so that the next layer can be hardened.
He filed a patent on the technology in 1984, but it was three weeks after a team of French inventors, Alain Le Méhauté, Olivier de Witte, and Jean Claude André, filed a patent for a similar process. However, their employers abandoned efforts to further develop the technology due to “lack of business perspective.” This allowed Hull to copyright the term “Stereolithography.” His patent, titled “Apparatus for Production of Three-Dimensional Objects by Stereolithography” was issued on March 11, 1986. That year, Hull also formed 3D systems in Valencia, California so he could begin rapid prototyping commercially.
Expanding to Different Materials and Techniques
While Hull's patent covered many aspects of 3D printing, including the design and operating software, techniques and a variety of materials, other inventors would build upon the concept with different approaches. In 1989, a patent was awarded to Carl Deckard, a University of Texas graduate student who developed a method called selective laser sintering. With SLS, a laser beam was used to custom-bind powdered materials, such as metal, together to form a layer of the object. Fresh powder would be added to the surface after each successive layer. Other variations such as direct metal laser sintering and selective laser melting are also used for crafting metal objects.
The most popular and most recognizable form of 3D printing is called fused deposition modeling. FDP, developed by inventor S. Scott Crump lays down the material in layers directly onto a platform. The material, usually a resin, is dispensed through a metal wire and, once released through the nozzle, hardens immediately. The idea came to Crump in 1988 while he was trying to make a toy frog for his daughter by dispensing candle wax through a glue gun.
In 1989, Crump patented the technology and with his wife co-founded Stratasys Ltd. to make and sell 3D printing machines for rapid prototyping or commercial manufacturing. They took their company public in 1994 and by 2003, FDP became the top-selling rapid prototyping technology.