Today, 3D printers are everywhere. Since the early 1980s, 3D printing has evolved into a multi-billion dollar global industry.
Before 3D printing, product designers and artists lived in a two-dimensional world, creating designs on paper. If a 3D model was necessary, designers had to build it by assembling parts or sculpting from blank solids. These models, also known as prototypes, were time-consuming and expensive to build. In the 1970s, CAD software emerged to improve the design process. Designers replaced tedious hand drawings with computer sketches. This saved money and time, but they still didn't have an easy way to create a model.
The Brains Behind the Printers
3D printing history would be incomplete without a discussion of the software that powers the printers. Before 3D software, designers and engineers generated flat, two-dimensional designs and artists created 3D models from those designs. The process was difficult and expensive. This all changed with the invention of 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software.
Designers could translate their ideas directly into three-dimensional models. First generation 3D CAD software was very expensive and required high-performance workstations. Aerospace and automotive companies were the primary users of early CAD software. They worked with software companies to improve 3D CAD technology.
3D CAD software generates models using a mesh of geometric shapes. Designers can view and edit the models on their computer screens. STL files translate models into a language 3D printers can understand. Slicer software then slices the CAD model into virtual layers for printing.
Today, 3D CAD software prices are low enough for consumers to use with desktop 3D printers. Evolving 3D printing technology continues to drive improvements in quality and price.
In 1982, Chuck Hall was a design engineer trying to solve a manufacturing problem. In an interview with Industry Week, he explained the problem: "The process then was, you design the part, then do blueprints of the part, discuss it with a toolmaker who would make the mold for the plastic part. Then that mold would go to a molder who would inject that first part. At least six weeks later, maybe eight weeks, you would see your first part."
Hall went on to patent a design for the stereolithographic (SLA) 3D printer. He used UV light to bind polymers into layers. The light strikes a layer of polymer that hardens and then lowers into a bath of liquid polymer. Each layer hardens until the shape formed.
Selective Laser Sintering
College student Carl Decker patented a 3D printing method using laser technology. Selective laser sintering (SLS) uses lasers to bind thermoplastic powders into a shape.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)
In 1988, S. Scott Crump was looking for a simpler way to make a toy frog for his daughter. Using a hot glue gun, he melted plastic and poured it into thin layers. He called the invention Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM).
His machine melted and layered plastic filaments onto a flat surface. The shape formed as the plastic cooled. He then used numerically-controlled (NC) software to automate the process. With patent in hand, Crump and his wife Lisa went on to found Stratasys. FDM® is now used in many 3D printers.
3D Printing Technologies at Work
Prototyping is still the most common application for 3D printed models. Designers create models to view designs in tangible form. This allows them to make modifications and improvements early in the design process. 3D printed parts made of composites and metals are then used in the final products. They are also used for molds and tooling on the factory floor.
In thirty years, the dreams of a few brilliant people created a booming new industry. Their hard work and long hours now benefit the millions of inventors, artists, and engineers.