The Evolution of 3D Printing: From Prototype to Revolution

Posted On 12/10/2023 By Protolabs

In the vast manufacturing landscape, 3D printing has emerged as a revolutionary force, transforming how we conceive and create objects. Although considered a newcomer compared to traditional methods like injection moulding and CNC machining, the history of 3D printing dates further back than many might imagine.

The Pioneering Years: 1945 to 1981

The roots of 3D printing can be traced to the imaginative minds of science fiction writers. In 1945, Murray Leinster's short story "Things Pass By" and Raymond F. Jones' 1950 article in "Astounding Science Fiction," titled "Tools of the Trade," first described the concept and process of 3D printing. However, it wasn't until 1981 that Hideo Kodama filed a patent for his XYZ plotter, marking a crucial turning point for the industry.

Despite budget constraints leading to the abandonment of Kodama's project, the 1980s witnessed a surge of innovation. In 1984, Chuck Hull filed the first-ever patent for a 3D printer utilising stereolithography (SLA). The following years saw the birth of Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), and other groundbreaking techniques.

The Decade of Innovation: 1980s

Carl Deckard's invention of Selective Laser Sintering in 1986 and Chuck Hull's patent approval for stereolithography marked a pivotal era for 3D printing. The 1980s also witnessed the advent of Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) by Scott Crump in 1989, laying the foundation for companies like Stratasys.


Diverse Printing Techniques

The realm of 3D printing is vast, encompassing various techniques and technologies. Let's explore some of the prominent categories:

VAT Polymerisation
  • SL/SLA (Stereolithography): Chuck Hull's creation in 1984 employed a digital light projector to cure resin, layer by layer selectively.
  • DLP (Digital Light Processing): Larry Hornbeck's 1987 innovation is similar to SLA but uses a DLP projector for faster printing.
  • Carbon DLS (Digital Light Synthesis): Originating in 2015 and developed by Carbon, this method employs an oxygen-permeable membrane for continuous liquid interface production.
  • LCD (Liquid Crystal Display): Similar to DLP, this technique uses an LCD screen to cure resin, solidifying printed layers selectively.

direct metal laser sintering
Powder Bed Fusion (PBF)
  • SLS (Selective Laser Sintering): Developed by Dr. Carl Deckard and Dr. Joe Beaman in 1986, SLS uses a laser to fuse powdered material selectively.
  • DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering): EOS GmbH's creation in 1995 adapted SLS for metal, using a laser to fuse metal powder particles.
  • Multi Jet Fusion: HP's 2016 invention involves selectively depositing agents on a powder bed, fusing areas to solidify the part.

Material Jetting
  • PolyJet: Developed by Hanan Gothait, Rami Bonen, and Gershon Miller in 2000, this method uses inkjet printing to deposit and cure droplets of photopolymer layer by layer.
  • MJP (MultiJet Printing): Introduced by 3D Systems in 1996, MJP uses printheads to deposit liquid photopolymer layer by layer, cured with UV light.
  • NanoParticle Jetting: XJet's 2016 innovation combines inkjet printing with metal nanoparticles suspended in a liquid binder for detailed, dense metal parts.

Binder Jetting
  • Metal Binder Jetting: Developed by Ely Sachs and Mike Cima in 1993, it involves selectively depositing a liquid binder onto layers of metal powder.
  • Bioprinting: Organovo's 2002 approach, not strictly binder jetting, uses inkjet-like methods to deposit bio-inks layer by layer for tissue-like structures.

Material Extrusion
  • FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling): Scott Crump's 1988 invention, where the thermoplastic filament is melted and deposited layer by layer.
  • CFF (Composite Fibre Fabrication): Markforged's 2014 method combines material extrusion with continuous fibre reinforcement for enhanced strength.
  • Pellet Extrusion: Josef Prusa's 2013/14 innovation uses plastic pellets melted and extruded to form layers.

Directed Energy Deposition (DED)
  • LENS (Laser Engineered Net Shaping): Optomec's 1997 creation uses a high-power laser to melt and fuse metal powder or wire.
  • EBAM (Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing): Sciaky's 2009 method uses an electron beam for melting and fusing metal powder.
  • DMD (Direct Metal Deposition): Developed by the University of Michigan POM Group in 1998, it uses a laser or electron beam to melt and fuse metal powder or wire.

Sheet Lamination
  • LOM (Laminated Object Manufacturing): Helisys' 1991 method involves cutting or scribing shapes onto sheets and bonding them layer by layer.
  • UAM (Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing): Dawn White's 1999 invention uses ultrasonic vibrations to bond thin metal foils together layer by layer.

Conclusion: A Dynamic Future

The journey of 3D printing from its speculative origins to the range of applications available today showcases this production method's dynamic and innovative nature – one that is still evolving! As technology advances, we can anticipate even more groundbreaking developments that will shape the future of manufacturing and redefine what's possible with 3D printing.