18th June 2021
3D printing, also referred to as additive manufacturing, is a method of creating products by building them, layer by layer, into fully three-dimensional, finished pieces. The various methods and materials incorporated under the umbrella of 3D printing is ever growing, as is the umbrella itself as new technologies are brought to market.
At the beginning of the 80s, the first published account of 3D printing using photopolymers was made by Japanese researcher Dr. Hideo Kodama, who applied for the patent to a laser beam resin curing system for rapid prototyping. Issues with both funding and a lack of interest in his project meant that the process was never completed in time, and his application failed to meet deadline.
A few years later, a trio of French researchers – Jean-Claude André, Olivier de Witte, and Alain le Méhauté – faced a similar problem in their own attempts to file a patent for curing liquid plastics into solid parts, which ultimately also fell through.
Just a few weeks after them, a man named Charlies Hull applied for a successful patent for what he called stereolithography (what we now commonly know as SLA). Working for a furniture manufacturer, his frustrations with slow turnarounds for small custom parts led him to search for a faster way. Like those before him, he thought of using UV light to cure photosensitive resin, building it layer by layer to create wholly formed pieces.
In the less-than-ten years following, the invention of more 3D printing technologies emerged. Selective laser sintering, or SLS, took its first steps into the industry with its powder-based approach to laser-cured plastics.
Not far behind with another new invention, Stratasys itself was given the patent for Fused Deposition Modelling, or FDM – a market-leading technology that has gone on to do incredible things with its cost-effective speed capabilities. The patent was awarded in 1992 after being submitted by co-founder Scott Crump.
The vast majority of 3D printing currently uses the thermoplastics and photopolymers that have developed and evolved from their earlier brethren, though strides are being made in the use of ceramics and even common metals such as aluminium, titanium, and stainless steel. The process is also now aided by computer aided design, or CAD, software, greatly streamlining the process of printing a design and making necessary tweaks.
3D printing has far outstripped its days as an experimental prototyping technology. While it still holds many key benefits for both rapid and functional prototyping, 3D printing can now create end-use parts reliably, accurately, and with the strength and wear-resistance that you’d find in many traditionally manufactured materials.
Entry cost can still be too steep for some, but this is a barrier that is falling all the time. As the technology advances and becomes more accessible, its potential applications as a faster solution widen. Many 3D printing machines are now easy enough to pick up within a week, and CAD software is constantly reimagined and reiterated with greater user-friendliness in mind.
Simply put, it’s never been easier to start making things on a 3D printer today.