3D printers are pretty compact nowadays – they can fit on your desktop or in a microwave-sized corner in your kitchen. However, this wasn’t always the case. You may be surprised to know that despite its appearance as a new, innovative technology, 3D printing has been around since the mid 1980s. What used to be just industrial machines the size of small cranes transformed into perhaps the solution to organ shortages, the housing crisis, and the democratization of manufacturing, in just 30 years.
The history of 3D printing is a long story, and we felt it was important to include everything relevant to the last 30 years of progress. From our research we decided to split the history of 3D printing into four main parts:
- History of 3D printing Part 1 – Inception: 1980 – 1995.
- History of 3D printing Part 2 – Adolescence: 1996 – 2009.
- History of 3D printing Part 3 – Young Adulthood: 2009 – 2014.
- History of 3D printing Part 4 – Cusp of Maturity: 2015 – the present day.
- 1 Part 1: 1980 – 1995, Inception & early innovations in 3D printing
- 2 Part 2: 1996 – 2009, the journey to democratization
- 3 Part 3: 2009 – 2014: FDM & SLA patents expire, worldwide democratization of 3D printing
- 3.1 2009: The first affordable FDM 3D printers
- 3.2 2009 – 11: Cars, gold jewelry, and the rise of Ultimaker
- 3.3 2012 – 14: The democratization of Stereolithography
- 3.4 2012 – 13: Stratasys & Objet merge, Stratasys buys Makerbot
- 3.5 Cody Wilson and the 3D printed gun
- 3.6 2014: 3D Printing in space, and SLS and SLA patents expire
- 4 Part 4: 2015 – Present – Metal 3D printing, cusp of major developments in 3D bioprinting and construction
Part 1: 1980 – 1995, Inception & early innovations in 3D printing
Who invented 3D Printing?
In May 1981, Dr Hideo Kodama at the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute published details concerning a ‘rapid prototyping’ technique. This research was the first piece of literature to describe the layer-by-layer approach so intrinsic to 3D printing. His research involved printing photopolymers using a method which preceded stereolithography, and also spoke about cross-sectional slices of layers which lay on top of each other to form the 3D object. However, Dr Kodama didn’t fulfil the patent application before his deadline and was never granted the patent. What makes this even worse is that Dr Kodama is claimed to be a trained patent lawyer.
Instead, we had to wait several more years for the birth of 3D printing. But who invented 3D printing?
1984 – 87: Early History of 3D printing & invention of Stereolithography
Three years later in 1984, three French engineers named Alain Le Méhauté, Olivier de Witte, and Jean Claude André filed a patent for the Stereolithography process. They were to pioneer a new manufacturing process that was to revolutionize manufacturing! But it wasn’t to be. The three men abandoned the patent soon after they filed it, citing ‘lack of business perspective.’ In hindsight, I’m sure they’re gutted.
Just three weeks after the French engineers, Charles ‘Chuck’ Hull filed his patent for Stereolithography, with new features such as the STL file format and digital slicing. His process used ultraviolet light to cure photopolymers. Since filing and obtaining the patents by 1986, Chuck Hull formed 3D Systems and released the first ever 3D printer, the SLA-1, in 1987. 3D printing was born.
It is therefore arguable that either Chuck Hull or Dr Kodama invented 3D printing, though Chuck Hull is credited far more and rightfully so. Ideas are plentiful; making them tangible is the struggle.
1988 – 92: Stratasys, EOS, and FDM and SLS to rival SLA
Stereolithography had competition in the 3D printing space however, with rival processes in development. In 1988, Carl Deckard at the University of Texas filed a patent for Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) technology. Instead of using a UV light, SLS used a laser to trace and solidify layers of powder polymers. This innovative new technology was then leased to DTM Inc. to use.
Then it became a three horse race. Scott Crump co-founded Stratasys in 1989 and files the patent for Fused Deposition Modeling, probably the most well-known 3D printing technology today. 3D Systems and Chuck Hull may have had a head start, but competitors were hot on his heels.
This competition was further exacerbated by the founding of EOS in 1989 in Germany by Dr Hans Steinbilcherr. The German juggernaut would go on to dominate the SLS 3D printer market, as well as pioneer Direct Metal Laser Sintering in the mid-90s.
After the release of the SLA-1 a few years prior, Stratasys released their first FDM 3D printer in 1991. This signaled the first tangible competition for 3D Systems, as each had the patent rights to two very different technologies under the 3D printing umbrella. FDM parts were stronger and more chemically resistant, but SLA parts could be created quicker, and more accurately. Who would come out on top?
The next year in 1992, DTM Inc. brought out their first SLS 3D printer. It is however worth remembering that these machines were behemoths, not the compact and inexpensive desktop machines of today. They competed for industrial prototyping contracts, not to be your son’s Christmas present. Nevertheless, the game was afoot. The three 3D printing technologies, which eventually evolved to become mainstays in modern printers, were competing at last.
1993 – 95: ZCorp, Color Jet 3D printing, and maturation
Though less known in the modern day, ZCorp were another major 3D printing company back in the early 90s. In 1993, MIT developed a 3D printing technique based on inkjet printers – the ones we use to print in our offices on paper. Adapting this 2D technology for 3D, ZCorp released their first 3D printer, the Z Corp Z402. The technology was originally called Zprinting, though the range are now called Color Jet printers. The first model used starch and plaster-based powder materials and a water-based binder to print objects.
In the same year, another novel 3D printing solution was brought closer to the market. In 1993, Royden Sanders founded Solidscape (originally called Sanders Prototype Inc.), which created wax 3D printers. These didn’t create the conventional prototypes that other technologies sought to, but instead made wax molds. These molds were then used in investment casting to create objects out of other, more solid, materials. Solidscape released the Model Maker in 1994, their first wax 3D printer, establishing itself as a favorite among jewelers creating 3D printed jewelry.
In less than ten years, 3D printing had gone from being a fanciful idea on a piece of paper to an effective niche option in small-scale manufacturing. The machines might have been big and slow, but that was the norm in 1995. Even desktop computers were almost prohibitively expensive then. Much more was to occur however, as we will find out.
Part 2: 1996 – 2009, the journey to democratization
The first ten years of 3D printing had led to a selection of machines which could viably compete in areas such as prototyping and small-batch manufacturing. Future giants such as 3D Systems, Stratasys, and EOS had been born, though they were relative minnows compared to the billion-dollar valuations they now possess.
1996 – 98: Arcam, Objet, and the first 3D printing medical breakthrough
The late 1990s was another important time for newly established 3D printing companies. 1997 saw the creation of Arcam, who specialize in metal 3D printer machines and who are the only manufacturer of Electron Beam Melting (EBM) 3D printers. Additionally, the following year saw Objet Geometries established in 1998 in Israel, who would introduce their PolyJet 3D printing technology to the world.
Stepping away from the purely commercial side of 3D printing, 1999 saw the first extraordinary achievement by 3D printing in the medical industry. Scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine managed to 3D bioprint synthetic scaffolds of a human bladder. They then coated these scaffolds with cells from the patient’s tissue before this newly generated tissue was implanted into the patient. Since this tissue was made from the patient’s own cells, there was a low-to-zero risk of the body rejecting it, marking an important win for 3D printing in medical. If you want to read our feature story on 3D bioprinting and 3D printed organs, click here.
1999 – 2002: 3D printing goes multi-colored, 3D Systems take over SLS
The turn of the millennium brought another set of milestones for 3D printing. ZCorp revealed the first multi-color 3D printer, whilst Objet Geometries released their first inkjet 3D printer, both in 2000. Though Stratasys and 3D Systems were still two of the biggest names in the industry, churning out a variety of industrial machines, these hard-working understudies were growing in size and stature.
In a huge move at the time, 3D Systems took control of the Selective Laser Sintering market by acquiring DTM Inc. in April 2001. The move was worth $45M and saw 3D Systems become market leaders in two different 3D printing technologies: SLA and SLS.
The 3D printed bladder was merely the start for bioprinting and 3D printing’s ongoing usefulness in medical treatments. In 2002, a 3D printed miniature human kidney was created, again at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Though not full size, this represented a key advancement in bioprinting, exciting many that 3D printed organs could solve the shortage of organs available for transplant. EnvisionTEC were also established in 2002, who have grown to become a major 3D printing company, selling over 40 printers which are widely used across the jewelry, bioprinting and dental industries.
2004 – 05: Beginnings of RepRap, and 3D Printing goes HD
During the years 2004 and 2005, the beginnings of what is arguably the most important single actor in 3D printing’s past, present, and future, materialized. A senior lecturer at the University of Bath, Dr. Adrian Bowyer, had been inspired by 3D printing and had ideas for 3D printers that could self-replicate – and build more versions of themselves. The movement, named RepRap (short for ‘replicating rapid prototyper’), started off as an initiative within the University of Bath, but later gained popularity worldwide. The project was open source and focused on the spreading of low-cost 3D printing worldwide, leading to its democratization. This led to much renewed interest in 3D printing as people edited and tinkered with his designs.
ZCorp were intent on making 2005 their year too however, announcing their Spectrum Z510 3D printer. This wasn’t your average yearly upgrade with marginally improved specs, but a voyage into the unknown which shattered perceived limitations of 3D printing. The Z510 could not only print in color, but was the first 3D printer that could print in color in HD.
2005 – 08: Binder Jetting, RepRap becomes viable, 1st 3D printed prosthetic
Also in 2005, ExOne was established as a standalone company from the Extrude Hone Corporation. ExOne would go on to become a leader in Binder Jetting 3D printing, capable of 3D printing objects in metal, as well as sandstone. Binder Jetting can create full-color sandstone objects, as well as metal parts with very complex geometries.
Whilst corporations were breaking records, Dr. Adrian Bowyer and his RepRap movement were also hard at work with more wholesome goals. The 2008 release of the ‘Darwin’ RepRap 3D printer was huge – the printer could self-replicate, and people could now easily and cheaply 3D print at home if they had moderate technological and technical knowledge. Darwin wasn’t pretty, but it was functional. What used to be an industry dominated by room-sized industrial machines could now be rivaled by machines that fit on top of a washing machine. Anyone could easily obtain the parts to create their own Darwin, the only rule being that if you received the parts, you were under obligation to 3D print the parts for another three Darwins for other enthusiasts. DIY 3D printer kits would go on to have an incredible impact.
Although now widely known, a small website called Thingiverse, owned by a fledgling company called Makerbot launched in 2008. Thingiverse allowed designers to upload their 3D models built on various 3D software for others to download for free and print at home. Since everybody loves free stuff, Thingiverse soon took off. It is now in the top 700 most popular websites in the USA, and just outside the top 1,000 websites in the world.
Another major event in 2008 was that the first 3D printed prosthetic was created. This extraordinary achievement was compounded by the fact that this prosthetic leg did not need to be assembled, it was 3D printed to function immediately. This opened the eyes of many to how 3D printing could save time and labor, as fully-assembled objects could be printed from scratch. The one-off nature of 3D printing also suggested that it would be the perfect method to create customized prosthetics and medical implants based on individual patients’ needs. Instead of the usual several month lead times for prosthetics, 3D scanners could scan a patients’ arm or leg, and almost immediately begin to create a prosthetic that fit them perfectly.
Finally in 2008, Stratasys released a new material compatible with their FDM 3D printers. This wasn’t any material however, but a material that was bio-compatible. This opened the door to bioprinting becoming far more widely available in the near future.
The years up to the start of 2009 were an adolescence for 3D printing. New technologies became available such as Electron Beam Melting and Binder Jetting, medical advances were made, and the RepRap movement became viable.
In 2009 however, US patent law meant that within a few years 3D printers would become cheap enough for everybody to have one in their home if they wished.
Part 3: 2009 – 2014: FDM & SLA patents expire, worldwide democratization of 3D printing
A patent expired between end tail end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009. Big deal, patents expire all the time right? This patent was owned by a now-very-large company called Stratasys, for Fused Deposition Modeling technology. FDM is the simplest 3D printing technology; it involves heating up a plastic filament until it melts, and then extrudes it out layer-by-layer. Since the technology could be replicated the most cheaply, business-minded hobbyists and small businesses watched on eagerly for the patent to fall into public domain so they could create their own versions.
2009: The first affordable FDM 3D printers
The first affordable FDM 3D printer kit was released in January 2009. It was called the BfB RapMan printer and although it was first, it wasn’t ugly or terrible. Future iterations were made, and perhaps it would have made a bigger impact if the fledgling company we mentioned earlier hadn’t appeared three months later.
The first Makerbot DIY 3D printer kit released in April 2009. Makerbot were supporters of the open source community, and their first printer, called Cupcake CNC, could be built entirely from parts downloadable from Thingiverse. Demand exploded, and Makerbot had to ask their customers for help to create parts for their backlog of orders. Makerbot were becoming the early kings of affordable desktop 3D printers.
2009 wasn’t just a year for FDM printers however. Organovo, a 3D bioprinting firm, managed to create the first 3D printed blood vessel. This was managed on a new 3D bioprinter which showed significant promise for the future creation of whole organs such as kidneys and hearts.
2009 – 11: Cars, gold jewelry, and the rise of Ultimaker
In recent years, online 3D printing service companies had sprung up to capitalize on the growing demand for 3D printed parts. These services work by allowing users to upload models they have either designed or downloaded, and pay for them to be 3D printed and mailed to their door. Some even allow users to sell their designs on an online marketplace and get paid for their designs. Companies like Shapeways, Sculpteo, i.materialise, and later 3D Hubs, grew to print hundreds of thousands of parts on demand by the early 2010s. i.materialise then made headlines in 2011 when they were the first to offer 14k gold and sterling silver as 3D printable materials. Anyone who had designed something on their computers at home could (if they had deep enough pockets) have their model 3D printed in gold. The possibilities for short-run 3D printed jewelry ballooned.
Also in 2011, Kor Ecologic produced the first 3D printed car. The car, called Urbee, uses electric motors and gets 200 miles to the gallon.
Though Makerbot had dominated the open source, desktop 3D printer market, competition was about to toughen up. Ultimaker was established in 2011 in Geldermalsen, Netherlands, and released the first Ultimaker 3D printer in March 2011. The Ultimaker Original was made from lasered plywood and proved an enormous success, launching them into the spotlight.
2012 – 14: The democratization of Stereolithography
Though the original patents for Stereolithography had expired over five years before, nobody had yet been able to create an affordable SLA 3D printer. This changed in June 2012 when the B9Creator released after raising over $500,000 on Kickstarter. The B9Creator utilized a similar technology to Stereolithography called Digital Light Processing (DLP), and could be pre-ordered for $2,375.
6 months later, the affordable resin 3D printer game was changed again, when a new and then unknown startup called Formlabs launched their Kickstarter campaign for a 3D printer called the Form 1. You could pre-order a Form 1 starting at $2,299, and unlike the B9Creator it utilized Stereolithography. The project was an instant hit, raising an almost unprecedented $2.95 million in 30 days. Formlabs have since gone on to release SLS 3D printers, an upgraded SLA 3D printer in the Form 2, and grow to over a hundred staff.
2012 – 13: Stratasys & Objet merge, Stratasys buys Makerbot
Objet Geometries had gone from strength to strength since the early 2000s, improving their PolyJet technology that could print in full-color. This eventually led to possibly the biggest acquisition in the history of the 3D printing industry. On April 16th 2012, Stratasys announced that it had merged with Objet in an all-stock transaction, with Stratasys being the surviving company. Stratasys would own 55% of this new company, with Objet owning 45%. This gargantuan deal meant the new Stratasys was worth $3 billion at the time.
Stratasys didn’t stop there however. Despite competition from Ultimaker, and open source fans Aleph Objects (who produce Lulzbot 3D printers), Makerbot were still doing very well. On June 23rd 2013, Stratasys announced that Makerbot was the newest item on its shopping list, acquiring the FDM 3D printer giant in a $604M deal, with $403M paid upfront in stock. The founders of Makerbot have all since departed, and their newest machines are no longer open source.
Cody Wilson and the 3D printed gun
Later in 2013, Cody Wilson became a viral sensation after his company Defense Distributed posted an STL file on its site for 3D printing a working 3D printed gun. The US Government ordered Defense Distributed to remove the designs three days later, but the gun had already been downloaded over 100,000 times.
Metal 3D printing has recently become big talk, but before 2015 when tens of startups appeared, the industry was dominated by a few large players like EOS, Arcam and SLM Solutions. 3D Systems’ intent in getting involved in the metal 3D printing sector led to them acquiring French company Phenix Systems in July 2013. 3D Systems paid $15.1M for 81% of the shares and integrated Phenix’s metal 3D printers into their product range.
2014: 3D Printing in space, and SLS and SLA patents expire
The following year, a more wholesome achievement in 3D printing was realized. NASA announced they had used a 3D printer in space and created the first 3D printed object in space in 2014. This opened the door for future space manufacturing and the ability of future astronauts to create tools on-demand in space. They could be ‘beamed’ designs for whichever tool was required at the time from Earth, and then print these tools out to use in space.
2014 was another big year for patents related to 3D printing expiring. First, the major SLS patent expired in 2014, meaning that cheaper alternatives could start being designed by individuals so inclined. Companies like Sintratec and Formlabs worked to create less expensive SLS 3D printers that were still viable. Up until then, most SLS machines were industrial, room-sized behemoths which started at $250,000. This new wave of SLS printers started at $5,000, helping to democratize Selective Laser Sintering.
Moreover, on March 11th 2014 another major 3D printing patent expired. Though Chuck Hull’s original patent had expired a decade earlier, this new patent expiry meant a much more innovative SLA 3D printing process was now in the public domain. Companies such as Formlabs had launched SLA 3D printers a couple of years previously, which patent holder 3D Systems did not take a shining to. In fact, 3D Systems sued Formlabs in 2012 after they raised their $2.9M from Kickstarter. The case was eventually settled, with Formlabs agreeing to pay an 8% royalty on all sales to 3D Systems.
Though 3D printing had always previously been an industry dominated by a few large firms, this period was especially significant. The two original companies, 3D Systems and Stratasys, solidified their hold on the market by acquiring competitors like Phenix, Makerbot, DTM, Objet, and more.
The industry was far from a monopoly or oligopoly however. Huge numbers of new competitors offered affordable machines that rivaled their industrial printers. Examples include Ultimaker, Lulzbot, and Prusa 3D printers in the desktop and DIY 3D printer kit markets, and Desktop Metal, Concept Laser, Carbon 3D among others in the industrial sector. We will speak more on these newly-mentioned companies in the next part.
Part 4: 2015 – Present – Metal 3D printing, cusp of major developments in 3D bioprinting and construction
Carbon 3D and Desktop Metal: 0 to $1 billion in 3 years
Carbon 3D was formed on July 11th 2014 in California by Joseph and Philip DeSimone. The main tech behind the company was inspired by Terminator 2, and was named CLIP (Continuous Liquid Interface Production). By the end of 2017 the company had raised over $360 million and had a valuation of $1.7 billion – more than Stratasys and 3D Systems (both companies fell sharply in value after the 2013-14 3D printing hysteria died down from valuations in excess of $3 billion previously).
But how did they manage this?
In March 2015, Joseph DeSimone gave the now-viral TED Talk about 3D printing 100x faster. This announced very clearly to the world that Carbon 3D were ones to watch if they could make their CLIP technology feasible. A thorn that had long been in the back of 3D printing was it’s speed compared to other manufacturing processes. If Carbon 3D could really print so much faster, it was bound to catch on.
They’re not the only new 3D printing startup to be valued astronomically high and receive hundreds of millions of dollars in investment however. Another example is Desktop Metal, who have recently started to deliver the first batches of their Studio and Production System metal 3D printers. Since being founded in October 2015, Desktop Metal have received over $200M in investment and the company is now valued at over $1bn. Interestingly, Desktop Metal’s technology, Bound Metal Deposition, is very similar to FDM, just that it works with metal instead. There’s a reason that Silicon Valley investors (as well as Ford, Google, BMW, GE, and more) clamored to invest – their metal 3D printers can print metal 10x cheaper than alternative printers!
Though they may both be innovative, companies like Carbon 3D and Desktop Metal are nevertheless valued extremely generously compared to how many units and sales they currently make, compared to a Stratasys or an EOS who are both profitable and have revenues in the hundreds of millions. This is because investors are confident that they will grow to be far bigger and more profitable in the future. This trend occurs in most markets, not just 3D printing. Take Tesla for example – their revenues are dwarfed by some of the larger carmakers, yet Tesla’s market cap is larger than that of Ford. This is based on belief that Tesla will become the largest carmaker in the world in the future. We will have to see whether companies such as Carbon and Desktop Metal, as well as others like Markforged, Formlabs and Xact Metal can fulfill their investors’ hopes in the same way.
3D Systems enter the Hall of Fame
30 years after 3D Systems had kickstarted the industry, their first ever 3D printer, the SLA-1, was declared a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers). This formal recognition of the machine that started it all showed how far 3D printing had come since the 80s, especially following its growing notoriety to the public.
At around the same time, two very big technology companies entered the market. Household name big.
GE and HP enter
The first was HP, leaders in inkjet printing, who in 2016 announced that they would sell printers featuring their patented Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) technology. HP have since gone on to refine this technology, and in 2018 announced full-color 3D printers, industrial 3D printers at a much lower price range of $50,000, and a move into the metal 3D printing market.
The second household name was GE. Following the incorporation of a new company called GE Additive, the multinational giant acquired metal 3D printing giants Arcam and Concept Laser in late 2016 as part of a $1.4bn move into the additive manufacturing industry. GE Additive also tried to acquire SLM Solutions, but were ultimately unable to.
The incumbents now had HP and GE to worry about too. These deep-pocketed giants could invest billions in gaining a crucial technological advantage, and were now forced to innovate harder than ever. Competition is usually only a good thing for consumers however, as each company worked harder and harder to optimize their technologies to be as effective as possible.
The Ultimaker 3
Regarding the desktop 3D printer market, Ultimaker’s October 2016 release of the Ultimaker 3 was another landmark. It was an instant hit, earning boatloads of Best 3D Printer awards and cementing Ultimaker as a key player in the industry.
3D printing in construction: a very exciting prospect
But while all these companies were concentrating on 3D printing for manufacturing, others saw it as the solution to the growing housing crisis. 3D printing in construction was a $70M industry in 2017, but reports project it to be worth $40bn by 2027. Companies such as Apis Cor and WinSun sprung up, creating huge concrete 3D printers that could build skeletons of houses far quicker and cheaper than any human. This advance was immortalized by Apis Cor 3D printing a whole house in just 24 hours. Other construction and architectural projects involving 3D printing were completed throughout the 2016-2018 period include 3D printed bridges, houses, and even plans for skyscrapers in Dubai.