3D printing, which is technically referred to as Additive Manufacturing (AM), is all the rage in the manufacturing industry these days. Therefore, we decided to take a look into the origins of the this rapid prototyping and the promises it has yet to deliver.
The road to 3D printing
While AM gained momentum back in the 2000s, primarily in the US, its history extends to the ’80s with versatile origins. In 1980, Dr Kodama from Japan filed a patent application for Rapid Prototyping technology. He was the first to describe the layer by layer approach as a manufacturing method – by polymerizing photosensitive resin through UV light. Unfortunately, due to juridical regulations, his patent application was refused. Meanwhile, in Europe (predominately France) a group of engineers, Jean-Claude André, Olivier de Witte, and Alain le Méhauté, of CILAS ALCATEL filed a patent in relation to RP technology. However, because of the lack of an economical model they too were unsuccessful. The first official and proper 3D printing patent belonged to the American Charles Hull, who invented the Stereolithography Apparatus (SLA) in 1983 and co-founded the 3D Systems Corp.
The first 3D printer
Therefore, SLA-1 by 3D Systems Corp is considered to be the first commercial 3D printer. In the late 1980s many researchers were looking into the rapid prototyping technology. Selective Laser Sintering was developed in the university of Texas and a patent was issued in 1989. In the same year, a patent was filed by the future co-founder of Stratasys Inc for Fused Deposition Modeling. European products were being developed as well, the most successful one being the Laser Sintering process of EOS GmbH and Stereos of EOS which were available to the market by 1990. The ’90s witnessed a surge of 3D printing technologies under different names and through different processes such as Laminated Object Manufacturing, Three Dimensional Printing and Ballistic Particle Manufacturing.
3D printing becomes an industry
Since 3D printing secured a spot in the market, three main companies were able to sustain their stock values: 3D Systems Corp, Stratasys Inc. and EOS. Their machines were largely used for R&D prototyping and specific tooling modelling and relied only on resin. Starting in the 2000s, the market was aiming for printers under $5,000 and there was more development towards using other materials in 3D printing.
Opensource and 3D print your own printers were clear attempts that are still existing to this day thanks to Dr. Adrian Browyer, a professor in the University of Bath and his kits for 3D printers. But only in 2012 did we witness the surge of affordable printers in the market (DLP technology sold by B9Creator and Form 1). After 2013, marked by President Obama citing investing in new manufacturing, the potential for 3D printing was acknowledged and its adaptabilities in other industries seen as more plausible. Stratasys acquired Makerbot and the project Amaze of the European Space Agency paved the way to the use of 3D printing in the aerospace field – a high demanding environment.
Making 3D parts
After the medical and automotive industries we saw aerospace companies showing great interest, the age of 3D printed parts was upon us. The tentative move towards 3D printing created a trend which is now an established reality for many component manufacturers with many well known companies now utilising this technology. In 2014, through a collaboration between the University of South Carolina and NASA, the Cal-Earth institute tested the first giant 3D printer, aiming to build a house in 24 hours. The 3D printer is a robot projecting concrete which follows a virtual model. In 2017, we are awaiting a test in Amsterdam aiming to 3D print a bridge.
As for industry, AIRBUS and NASA have been open about their use of 3D printed parts in their designs. There is still a lot of work ahead to adapt additive manufacturing to a wide range of materials. This will eventually create proper protocols in analysis, certification and inspection. History suggests that it will not be long before 3D printing is used across an array of industries and seen as an integral part of the manufacturing process. Oh how times are a changing!