The History of 3D Printing
Author: 
Duncan Ryan

Although it has only attracted widespread attention over about the last 10 years, 3D printing is a technology that has now been around for almost 40 years. Needless to say, a lot has changed in that time, and modern 3D printers bear almost no resemblance to the first additive manufacturing devices. Here's what all 3D printing professionals and enthusiasts should know about the history of this world-changing technology and how it got to where it is today.

The Beginnings of Additive Manufacturing
The roots of modern 3D printing stretch back to 1981, when now-obscure Japanese researcher Hideo Kodama applied for a patent on a process that utilized ultraviolet light to cure liquid resin into solid shapes. Although Dr. Kodama could credibly be called the first pioneer of 3D printing, his patent application was never approved, and his research halted due to lack of funding.

In 1986, though, a process similar to Kodama's was patented by American inventor Chuck Hall, who gave it the name stereolithography. Alongside fused deposition modeling (FDM), this process is still one of the most common types of 3D printing today. Hall would go on to found his own company, 3D Systems, which produced the first generation of commercial additive manufacturing machines. The 3D printer had officially arrived.

The Move to Desktop Machines
In the 1980s, 3D printers were large, expensive devices reserved for commercial prototyping, rather than the user-friendly desktop devices we know today. Smaller printers became possible beginning in 1992, when a patent for FDM technology was awarded to Stratasys. FDM printers are naturally simpler than SLA printers, making them more conducive to individual use and easier to create in a compact package.

The real takeoff of desktop printers, though, would begin in 2009. In that year, the patent on FDM technology expired, allowing any company to freely use the technology in its devices. As a result, the 3D printer marketplace became vastly more competitive, driving a previously unprecedented level of innovation and a drastic reduction in device prices. By the mid-2010s, FDM technology had become so accessible that even home hobbyists could afford to buy 3D printers and manufacture small items and parts in the comfort of their own homes.  

The 3D Printing Landscape Today

Today, 3D printing is positioned as one of the most important technologies of the coming decades. By 2024, additive manufacturing is expected to represent over $35 billion in worldwide revenue. Manufacturers are increasingly taking advantage of 3D printing as a production technology, especially for small production runs. Increases in printing speeds and final print quality have also made 3D printers more useful for business applications.

While SLA and FDM remain the dominant 3D printing technologies, the additive manufacturing landscape today is also filled with exciting new technologies. From bioprinting of living human tissues to emerging methods for 3D printing electrical circuit boards, modern additive manufacturing is rapidly progressing beyond the printing of purely static materials like plastics and metals. As time goes on, the range of materials that can be used by 3D printers is only expected to continue increasing.

Even with all of these developments, FDM technology is still at the core of much of the world's 3D printing capacity. Unlike the old days, though, modern desktop FDM printers are fast, precise devices that can create high-quality parts. The Dremel DigiLab 3D45 is a perfect example of such a printer. With its rugged construction, wide material versatility and exceptional 50-micron print resolution, the 3D45 is a representation of the best modern 3D printing has to offer. Whether you're looking for a machine for business prototyping or for high-level home use, the DigiLab 3D45 is sure to be a good fit for your needs.