From the cotton gin to the assembly line, innovations in manufacturing have made it easier for entrepreneurs to grow their businesses without hiring extra employees. A more modern example of this, the 3d printer, has made it so that anyone can start a small business almost immediately that would be capable of manufacturing parts from computer files that would make rapid prototyping easier than ever. With the influence of 3d printing reaching into medicinal, food, and industrial production fields, owning or knowing how to use a 3d printer has become incredibly valuable within certain fields. With the growing popularity of small businesses, 3d printing has become as essential as items such as a cash register in some businesses, allowing owners to test new ideas for products without the need for purchasing high-quality test products. Being such an important piece of technology in the growth of manufacturing, it’s important to know where 3d printing started.
Despite seeming like a relatively new piece of technology, 3d printing has its origins in 1981 by a man named Hideo Kodama, from Japan. Kodama used a UV-reactive resin, known as a photopolymer, to create the first-use of what is known today as 3d printing, but he was unable to file a patent for the technology. It was in 1983 that three unnamed researchers from France sought to revisit the technology, but in a different manner. These researchers sought to use liquid monomers that they would solidify or “cure” with the use of a laser. Both teams are largely credited today as the first to use such technologies; however, they were unable to file their respective patents for the technology.1
Much like the French researchers, one man sought to revisit the technology later that year (1983). Charles W. Hull, while working as the vice-president engineer at Ultra-Violet Products(UVP), a company that used photopolymers to create durable covers for tables, sought to use the resin as a means of rapid prototyping for manufacturers; the only question he had was how. Borrowing his company’s lab during weeknights and weekends, Hull got to work experimenting with how changes in UV light affected the resin. He stayed often after work to continue his experiments.2It wasn’t long before his efforts produced what can be credited as the start of 3d printing—a black-eye wash cup.3 While seeming like such an insignificant part at the time, the cup that Hull had created would lead to the industry we know today.4 Hull was so excited after creating his part, that he called his wife to come down to his lab, still in her pajamas. His wife’s only response was, “This had better be good!”5
Unlike those before him, Hull filed a patent application for his design on August 8, 1984, naming the process “Apparatus for production of three-dimensional products by stereolithography.” The process itself focused a UV light on a vat of UV resin repeatedly to create a specific shape. Hull sought to use 3d printing in order to make use of CAD or Computer-Aided Design software, which generated 3d models in a plane on a computer. Two years later, Hull was granted his patent and co-founded the company 3D Systems, which was at the time the first 3D printing company in the world.6
After founding 3D systems, Hull and his team worked on creating a 3d printer for commercial use, as his original vision for the device was for businesses to create prototypes for their designs quickly and cheaply. In 1987, 3D Systems debuted their creation and the first commercialized 3d printer: the SLA-1 Stereolithography printer. Anyone with the funds could now start creating complicated parts or 3d objects. With Charles Hull as the Chief Technology Officer and the breakthrough machine that is the SLA-1, 3D Systems set out with more products that would change the world.7
While Hull was arguably the most prominent inventor during what is known as the “infant” stage of 3d printing, other inventors were beginning to make their own machines in the decades before the twenty-first century. Carl Deckard and Scott Crump are two inventors whose inventions went overlooked at the time of their invention due to Hull’s success. The SLS or Selective Laser Sintering form of printing, patented by Deckard in 1988, made use of a powder material, instead of Hulls photopolymers, along with a laser, in order to fabricate objects in a similar fashion to 3D Systems’ SLA-1. Crump’s patent filed one year later in 1989, known as FDM or Fused Deposition Modeling (also called Fused Filament Fabrication), is the most popular method of printing by today’s standards, as it made use of melted plastic filament extruded through a nozzle layer-by-layer.8
The next milestone for 3d printing came in 1999 when scientists at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine conducted the first transplant of a 3d printed organ. The organ in question was a human bladder, which was first printed by the scientists, then covered by the patient’s own cells, and implanted. Due to the bladder having the cells of the patient that it would be transplanted into, there was no chance of rejection.9
3d printing only expanded from there, beginning with open source software allowing consumers to access CAD software more easily. The expansion of 3d printing into other fields would only grow from there. Dr. Adrian Bowyer, from the University of Bath, made 3d printing even larger when he realized his idea to 3d print a 3d printer, allowing parts and printers to become even more accessible. Technological and Medical uses of 3d printing grew even more throughout the early 2000s, when items such as kidneys, prosthetic limbs, and even the first 3d printed car were printed in 2002, 2008, and 2011, respectively.10
Being the largest company in the industry, 3D Systems experienced immense growth alongside these discoveries. With Hull at the epicenter, 3d printing was recognized as one of the greatest inventions in history. Hull was recognized for his creation by the world and in 2014, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.11 Hull’s induction was the introduction of 3d printing to the public eye, inviting numerous companies to create their own lines of printers, and releasing them at affordable prices.
Hull has since been credited as the father of 3d printing, and his success has only grown since. Hull himself did not expect 3d printing to expand in the ways that it did, only seeing the industrial usage of the technology at the time.12 With recent developments such as the first 3d printed building and 3d printed foods, the industry Hull created almost 40 years ago has gone in directions no one would’ve expected.
From its origins in 1981, 3d printing has become one of the most prominent forms of technology for starting a business and has only become more readily accessible for anyone looking to print their designs. Some establishments such as libraries and schools have printers ready to use for either a fee or sometimes for free, depending on the place. 3d printing is now making leaps in the food, medicinal, and construction industries. Printers have been created with enough precision to replicate organs, and large enough to build a house, varying in size and materials. The possibilities of modern 3d printers are limitless, with the only constraints being the user’s imagination.