A brief history of 3D printing – Part 1: The first decades (1980-2000)

This blogpost will walk you through a brief history of 3D printing and will introduce you to the major names and events that made their mark on the field. Given that 3D printing is still a growing and developing industry, it’s hard to imagine it’s been around for over 40 years! To be able to include everything, we’ve split this history in two, and today we’ll focus on the first 20 years of 3D printing’s existence from 1980 to 2000. There’s much innovation to cover, so let’s go!

First, we need to mention 3D printing was not always known by that name. You’ll see how the terms have changed, but it’s safe to say that during this period of time it was referred to as additive manufacturing rather than anything else. That’s because the 3D printing process creates three dimensional objects by depositing materials in layers. In other words, it creates something by adding layer after layer rather than starting the process with a block of material and then removing what is not needed. Over time the flexibility of the additive method has allowed designers to create complex parts for machines at a fraction of the cost by effectively replacing standard methods such as forging, moulding and sculpting.

Time to focus on history. How was 3D printing born? Like most things, 3D printing came about as a result of several people working on similar ideas at the same time. Their work was not related and all of them approached their ideas in different ways. Here is a brief breakdown of their ideas and inventions.

In 1971, Johannes Gottwald patented a continuous inkjet metal material device, which he called a ‘Liquid Metal Recorder’. This appears to be the first patent ever describing the idea of 3D printing.

But it didn’t catch on.

The earliest 3D printing manufacturing equipment was developed by Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute, who invented two additive methods for fabricating 3D models with photo-hardening thermoset polymer. He filed a patent for his ‘XYZ plotter’ in 1981.

That didn’t catch on either.

But as the 1980s progressed, various patents were taken out that would eventually be the foundation of the industry we know today. A fabrication method using powdered metal and a laser was patented by the Raytheon company in 1982. The development of thermoplastic ink by the Howtek company in 1983 followed. The Computer Automated Manufacturing Process and System, patented by entrepreneur Bill Masters in 1984, is thought to be the first 3D printing patent in history. A ‘Method and Means’ device for constructing three-dimensional articles by particle deposition was created by the Howtek company in 1989, which led to Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), an idea first developed in 1988 by Scott Crump.





3D Printing HistoryHideo Kodama, Creator of the XYZ plotter.

Image: Sculpteo

However, probably the most important development in the 1980s came from inventor Charles “Chuck” Hull, who invented stereolithography (SLA) in 1983. At the time, Hull defined stereolithography as a method and apparatus for making solid objects by successively printing thin layers of ultraviolet curable material one on top of the other. It became widely used in rapid prototyping and direct manufacturing. The exciting part is, stereolithography uses computer-aided designs (CAD) to create the 3D models, and Chuck Hull is also the creator of the STL file format which is the industry standard today. In 1986, he co-founded the corporation 3D Systems which became the first 3D printing company in the world, and a year later the company commercialised the first ever 3D printer – the SLA-1 Stereolithography (SLA) printer.


3D Printing History

Charles "Chuck" Hull, inventor of stereolithography, and regarded as the 'father of 3D printing'.

Image: ASME

The 1990s were a decade of further innovation where a number of 3D printing processes we are familiar with today were developed. Here are some of them:

Material Extrusion (Stratasys, 1992): This technique uses spooled polymers which are either extruded or drawn through a heated nozzle which is mounted on a movable arm. This builds melted material layer by layer as the nozzle moves horizontally and the bed moves vertically. The layers adhere through temperature control or chemical bonding agents.

Binder Jetting (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1993): This technique uses a 3D printing style head moving on x, y and z axes to deposit alternating layers of powdered material and a liquid binder as an adhesive.

Directed Energy Deposition (Aeromet Corporation, 1997): This uses an energy source, such as a plasma arc, laser, or electron beam to melt a material which is simultaneously deposited by a nozzle. It can be used with a wide variety of materials including ceramics, metals and polymers.


Explanation of the Binder Jetting 3D printing method.

Video: YouTube, cegeptroisrivieres

By the start of the new millennium, 3D printing had established itself with the term ‘additive manufacturing’ and through the work of inventors and companies investing in the new technology, it became possible to 3D print in a variety of methods using different materials, most of which are still used today. The biggest problem that 3D printing faced at the time were the costs to get a printer – in the 1980s, the price for a 3D printer exceeded half a million dollars.

What happened next? We will look at the history of 3D printing between 2000 and the present in part 2 of this blog series. We’ll trace the new developments, the changes to the cost of 3D printers, and more! We hope you have enjoyed learning a bit more about the beginnings of 3D printing!