How has Digital Manufacturing Evolved?

A Look Back at 40 Years of 3D Printing

By Protolabs
3d printing machines

When we think of 3D printing, most people think of it as recent, but it has, in fact, been used in manufacturing since 1984.

Some of the most significant advances in 3D printing technology have happened in the last decade, bringing 3D printing to the forefront of manufacturing innovation. In this blog, we'll take a deep dive into the history of 3D printing and decode some of the most significant moments of innovation that have given us the machines we all know today.

The Birth of 3D Printing

This year, 3D printing turns 40! It was 40 years ago that Charles Hull invented the first 3D printing technology, Stereolithography (SLA). This was the start of a string of 3D printing technology innovations. Other technologies followed soon after, with SLS (selective laser sintering) and FDM (fused deposition modelling) both being invented in the 1980s.
However, it wasn’t until the 2010s that 3D printing started gaining popularity and mainstream usage.

The Bridge Years – From Birth to Mainstream Adoption

3D printing began to gain momentum in the 2010s, so what happened between that time and when 3D printing was first introduced in the 80s?

The years between were pivotal for 3D printing, which was full of technological advancements, expanded applications, and increased accessibility. These decades were more about expansion, evolution, and refinement.
In the 90s, many new 3D printing techniques, such as metal laser sintering, binder jetting, and direct metal deposition, entered the scene. It was during this period that early adopters in the automotive and aerospace industries started using 3D printing for rapid prototyping. Also, at this time, companies like 3D Systems and Stratasys began to commercialise 3D printing technologies, making them more readily available.
Whilst the 1990s were the decade of expanding the 3D printing offer, the 2000s were more about diversification and accessibility.
Corporate and industrial integration, open source projects, build-up from the media, and technological refinements slowly gained traction and led to 3D printing’s popularity in the 10s.

sla watershed material

A Spotlight on 3D Printing

So, why did it take until the 2010s for 3D printing to start gaining popularity?

Several factors brought 3D printing to the forefront in the 2010s.

  • Expiration of Patents—Patents started expiring for existing technologies, opening the market for more companies to develop competitive offerings.
  • The rise of DIY makers—Communities, hobbyists, and small businesses have led to increased awareness of 3D printing and innovation.
  • Media Attention – increased coverage highlighting the potential of 3D printing.
  • Corporate and Industrial Adoption—Major industries and companies began adopting 3D printing. Key industries such as the aerospace, automotive, and medical sectors recognised 3D printing’s potential.
  • Advancements in Technology and Materials – significant improvements such as higher resolution, faster printing speed, multi-material capabilities and the development of new materials.
  • Government and Educational Initiatives—Governments and educational institutions started investing in 3D printing for research and development. It was also integrated into STEM educational programmes.

Since the 2010s, 3D printing has expanded and evolved faster than ever due to its increasingly competitive landscape.
Numerous new techniques have entered the scene, such as Multi Jet Fusion, Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing, Pellet extrusion, and Nanoparticle jetting, to name just a few. Most industries have shown a keen interest in 3D printing, including those that wouldn’t synonymously be known for manufacturing, such as fashion and beauty.
Regarding materials, 3D printing still falls behind more traditional services, such as injection moulding and CNC machining, regarding the selection available. However, 3D printing’s material list has expanded vastly over the last decade, which doesn’t show any hint of stopping soon, with research focusing on biomaterials, eco-friendly resins, plant-based resins, and even moon dust.
The first 40 years of 3D printing have been transformative, and the next 40 look equally exciting.