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There are a lot of moments in the creation of 3D printers bringing us to this moment. The purpose of this post is to highlight those moments.
Not just any moment though, we’re only highlighting the big moments which changes the course of the 3D printer. If you’re looking for specific moments, take a look at this post.
3D Printers (1860-2000)
The origin of 3D printers started in the 1980s.
But, the concept of using cameras to create a three-dimensional object has been around ever since Francois Willeme conceptualized the photosculpture method in the 1860s.
The machine of 3D printing is a newer concept. There are new 3D printers getting made every year. Just look at the different models coming out. None of this is possible without additive manufacturing becoming possible which brings us to 1972.
In 1972, Mastubara proposed the idea of using photopolymers to use as layering. Then, in 1981, Hideo Kodama of the Municipal Industrial Research Institute publishes his work of a photopolymer rapid prototyping system.
Using a fast prototyping system is one of the main benefits of 3D printers. A lot of manufacturers can use a 3D printer which delivers a prototype in hours instead of weeks. A system like this is not only efficient, it’s cheaper than getting another manufacturer to do it.
This idea by Mastubara is a game changer for the industries which use prototypes. Below is a picture of what a rapid prototyping system looks like:
Then, 1984 comes and it’s a game changer in the 3D printing revolution. Charles Hull, who’s the founder of 3D systems comes up with stereolithography which is also known as SLA.
Creating SLA allowed printers to use a laser to create designs into the photopolymer. It’s one of the most commonly used printing technologies.
Both Mastubara and Hull created the foundation of 3D printing. An analogy similar to this is Hull creating the hammer, and Mastubara creating the nail. Both are needed to get where we are today.
The evolution of the 3D printer takes another turn when the SLS (selective laser sintering) printer comes into play. This printer uses powder instead of a liquid which SLA uses.
In 1999, scientists used 3D printed material to support live human organs. This demonstrates what a 3D printer can do at a practical level.
The medical field is a big beneficiary from 3D printers and it’ll continue to be so. From prosthetics, equipment, and organs, the medical field will see more 3D printer usage.
3D Printers (2000-2010)
The next era brings us to the 2000s. From here, the media starts noticing 3D printers and more 3D printer applications start growing. You’ll notice the inventions in this period slow down. There isn’t as much progress made, but this is true for all technology.
In the year 2000, the first multicolor 3D printer was made by Z Corp. This progress made dual extrusion printers possible. For those unaware, dual extruder printers allow you to print with multiple filaments and mix colors/materials.
Instead of printing one-dimensional objects, the year 2000 allowed 3D printers to bring variety.
Desktop 3D printers are mostly made using Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). FDM printers use a plastic filament which is stacked layer on layer.
FDM is a ubiquitous printer in the community right now. It’s common in the community because you don’t need extra special material or equipment to start printing. A lot of companies provide the material so you can start printing right away.
It’s at this point where you can see the modern 3D printer start to take form.
In 2002, a kidney was made with a 3D printer. Remember in 1999 when support material was made for organs? Well, it’s only natural that the next step is making an organ.
This isn’t just a huge milestone for 3D printers, this is a huge milestone for both the medical field and 3D printers. It’s important to note that the kidney was not a working one. We’re still a ways away before that starts happening. But, let’s think of the organ transplant process to imagine how long it takes.
Let’s use kidneys as an example. For someone to get a kidney, they need matching blood types and need an available blood kidney in the area. The average waiting time for kidneys is 3-5 years and this varies depending on where you live.
A 3D printer might be able to cut that wait time drastically. If doctors and scientists figure out the matching blood problem, 3D printers can just whip up an organ on the spot.
The mid 2000s might be the inflection point where the number of 3D printers in the market starts to change. This might be the turning point in the number of 3D printers because the printer RepRap created was open-source.
Showing how the printer was made and what materials were used allows others to try. They called it the “RepRap project”. RepRap was one of the first low-cost 3D printers on the market. It’s also one of the first free desktop 3D printers.
Another reason why the RepRap project and RepRap is significant is because its mission is to “self-replicate” its own 3D printers and provide them for free around the world.
Self-replication is exactly what they did in 2008 when they made “RepRap Darwin”. This printer is the first one to produce its own parts. Think about it, a 3D printer that can print itself and other practical tools.
The return on investment on a 3D printer is limitless. You can buy one for hundreds of dollars and make thousands of dollars in return. The best returns aren’t monetary though.
If I told you printers can make you a miniature kidney to save your life, what price would you put on that? What if I told you they can also make a prosthetic leg?
Well, guess what? In 2008, the latter became true. The first 3D prosthetic leg was made. People most likely won’t be printing their own leg at home. But, being able to print kidneys and prosthetics provides efficiency and customization never seen before.
A doctor can measure a patient out and send the measurements to a 3D printer operator and make you one in hours. There also won’t be problems with fit too because of the printer’s precision.
Having a 3D printer basically makes people more self-sufficient. Instead of going to the store to get a tool, just print one yourself. Not only does a 3D printer make people more productive, they can also turn makers into entrepreneurs.
Shapeways is an example of a website that has used 3D printing for commercial purposes. Thingiverse on the other hand is a website which shows the different models people have created. People who have popular models can sell the files to their design so other 3D printer enthusiasts can use them.
Both Shapeways and Thingiverse were born in 2008. The marketplace for 3D printers is still young. It’s only 12-13 years old which means it’s still in its early stages. But, we know technology moves fast so there’s a possibility this space fills out quickly.
3D Printers (2011-Present)
The timeline from 2011 to the present is where things start getting wild if it hasn’t already been wild.
There are already talks of 3D printers making houses on other planets. Think of how many dense places could use this. We have India, China, and more. The birth rate is growing exponentially which means we have less space and need more homes.
In addition, the transition from gas-fueled cars to electric cars is here. What can make creating cars more efficient? Of course, 3D printers!
In 2011, the first 3D printed car was created by Kor Ecologic. While it’ll be awhile until regular 3D printer enthusiasts can do this, it’s a sign of what’s coming.
Another interesting (although controversial) creation is the 3D printed gun. A 3D printer from what I know can’t create the bullets. But, the frame can be done. Someone with enough ingenuity can definitely make a whole gun with substitute material for bullets.
While the gun is a milestone. One of the biggest this decade is Stratasys delivering the first multi-color and multi-material 3D printer.
This is another turning point in the 3D printer industry. You can say this advancement really brought 3D printers to the mainstream.
It brought it to the mainstream with this advancement for a couple of reasons. The versatility makes it applicable in more industries, and it provides more value for 3D printer enthusiasts.
Present day, 3D printers are paving our future from sustainability to space. It’s literally being used to manufacture the future.
3D Printing Future
While a 3D printed house is already on the market which is big news, the bigger news is the benefits building homes with 3D printers have.
For one, it’s more efficient, and the second is it provides more customizability for homeowners.
Both of these advantages apply to space building too. We’re obviously not going to have many people up there to help build shelter, but bringing a 3D printer helps with the lack of labor.
Space also has inherent problems like gravity and heavy winds to deal with. Another problem with inhabiting planets like Mars is radiation protection. Solar flares or cosmic rays will turn a human into melted cheese quick.
Producing buildings that can defend against these elements require customization. Without 3D printers, this requires more capital because we need more specialists to design such buildings.
It also costs more to bring more people into space. 3D printers are the one-man wrecking crew to solve these problems.
With 3D printers, humans inhabiting Mars becomes more of a “when” than an “if”. 3D printing also benefits the environment and sustainability as well. Some argue that it requires more energy to use, but the benefits are recyclable material, sustainable materials, and more.
Building more homes as our population grows exponentially, and evolving into a more green society are net positives. This is why we don’t see 3D printers going anywhere soon. Technologies that benefit society as a whole start from becoming a toy to a necessity which is the trajectory 3D printers are on.