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Prototypes to Mass Production: 30 Years of 3D Printing

By November 9, 2016 No Comments

It all started in 1986.

Actually, it started in the early 1980s. But the first patent for 3D printing technology was issued in 1986 by Charles Hull (co-founder of 3D Systems).

That first 3D printing technology was stereolithography – specifically the stereolithography apparatus. This method used UV lasers to solidify photopolymer resins in layers until the desired objected was formed.

Patents for other 3D printing methods followed closely. These included various versions of laser sintering and fused deposition modeling (FDM). FDM remains the most commonly-used method in 3D printing today.

These technologies approached additive manufacturing differently, but accomplished the same goal: building an item layer by layer.

It Was Limited at the Beginning

Stereolithorgraphy’s photopolymer resins and a few thermoplastics were the first 3D printing materials. And they left a lot to be desired in color choices.

But as companies figured out how to convert materials into powders or filaments, more options became available. Items can now be printed from:

Color selections have grown, too. Materials themselves are offered in more colors, or can be painted after the object is printed.

3D Printing in Industry

Manufacturing, especially automotive and aviation, was quick to pick up on the use of 3D printing. So was the medical industry.

In fact, 3D printing made radical advances in medicine possible soon in its life. In 1999, the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine used 3D printing to create engineered organs for patients who needed urinary bladder augmentation.

But the benefits of 3D printing soon appealed to others, especially direct-to-consumer industries such as fine jewelry and sporting goods. As 3D printing is expected to dramatically change current manufacturing processes, even major logistics and shipping companies are getting involved.

Current Uses of 3D Printing

People mostly turn to 3D printing when they need the following:

  • Prototypes for new products.
  • Highly-customized products
  • Small runs of products with complex designs

But companies are working on ways to make 3D printers faster, able to print more items at a time, and use an even wider range of materials. For many, the goal is to make 3D printing more viable for mass production.


That first 3D printer mentioned – the stereolithography apparatus – would have cost you approximately $650,000 (it was priced at about $300,000).

That’s a large reason for why 3D printing was mainly used for manufacturing and medical applications for so long. It wasn’t until 2007 that you were able to purchase a printer for less than $10,000.

But once it was there, more industries started investing in 3D printers. Even schools and libraries began adding 3D printers to their facilities while hobbyists and DIYers bought desktop printers for their shops.

It’s Not Over Yet

There’s been a lot of change in the 30 years since Hull received his patent. And it’s not over yet. 3D printing is moving to disrupt many industries. We’re expecting it to revamp logistics. Revolutionize healthcare. Transform manufacturing. And do a few things we haven’t thought of yet.