3D printing’s 30 year history and why it’s popular now

Lulzbot Mini 3D Printer in action

3D printing has exploded over the past five years, but did you know 3D printing has actually been around since the 1980s? 3D printing is over 30 years old. So why all these years later has the popularity of 3D printing skyrocketed?

For a bit of backstory, 3D printing originated in 1984. The technical name for 3D printing is additive manufacturing for which a patent was filed for by Chuck Hull in 1984. For the first 20 years of the existence of additive manufacturing the focus was industrial manufacturing. The goal of the technology during this time was more focused on factory manufacturing applications, not at-home makers or classrooms that we are familiar with today.

Flashforge Creator Pro after printing jewelry

A mindset shift came about that allowed the pivot of 3D printing towards at home desktop printers in the 2000s. The industry split into large scale manufacturing and concept modelers. Concept modelers had a focus on office prototyping and not manufacturing for large companies. This means there was a focus on bringing down costs and making the machines more user-friendly and not limiting the machines to trained machinists. Unintentionally, these are also the things crucial to creating consumer friendly machine.

The next big move towards the 3D printing we know today came when Dr. Adrian Bowyer, a lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath, founded RepRap in 2005. RepRap is an abbreviation of replicating rapid prototype, meaning a 3D printer that can 3D print the parts for another 3D printer. It is self-replicating. In 2006, the RepRap prototype successfully printed the first part of itself. This part was then installed into the prototype.

A major price milestone was then reached in 2007 when 3D Systems released the first 3D printing system under $10,000. This still was not low enough to allow widespread consumer use, but it put the industry in a position of pressure to bring prices down to consumer friendly levels.

Then, in January 2009 the first commercially available 3D printer based on the RepRap concept, BfB RapMan 3D printer, was offered for sale. Quickly, other companies began to follow suit. Only a few months later, Makerbot released their own edition of a RepRap inspired printer as well. These printers were the start of hundreds of 3D printer companies springing up around the world. The RepRap movement has sparked a new sector of consumer level 3D printers leading to where we are today, a competitive market of consumer printers bringing reliable printers down to and below $1000 dollars.

New low cost and more efficient options are coming out all of the time, and more materials are becoming available to print at home. Toy maker Mattel has announced their Thingmaker, a 3D printer that creates custom toys for kids for just $299. The 3Doodler, a 3D printing pen, is now available for $99. As the eye of more consumers is on 3D printing, we will have to see what new features can safely be brought to consumers at friendly prices over the next few years.

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Scicomm specialist for the International Space Station. B.S. Mechanical engineering. Covering intersections of STEM and creativity. Views are my own.

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