How Far Has 3D Printing Come?

It might seem like 3D printing is a relatively recent development, and it’s only really in the last decade that a mainstream audience will have encountered this technology or even heard about the concept of additive manufacturing whatsoever.

The interesting thing is that 3D printing is actually much older than you might think, and has evolved significantly over the decades to reach its current state. Here is a look at how far it has come and where it might go in the future.

Image Source: Pixabay

Early era

To chart the beginnings of 3D printing, we have to go all the way back to 1981 when Dr Hideo Kodama filed a patent for a system whereby layers of resin would be added one at a time and cured by lasers to create structures in much the way we know today.

While this application was unsuccessful, it was not long before researchers in France took up Dr Kodama’s idea and ran with it, with stereolithography being mentioned in a patent in 1986.

Race for accessibility

By the late 1980s, several different teams around the world were developing competing 3D printing techniques. The result was the diversity in the additive manufacturing technologies seen to this day, as well as the broadening accessibility afforded would-be users. This explains why the 3D printing that businesses can leverage today is quite varied, and also why getting an injection moulding quote may be preferable depending on your needs.

As the 1990s got underway, patents for a number of the now-established 3D printing solutions were issued to different bodies, companies and corporations. Stratasys, for example, got ahead of the curve with a 1992 patent for fused deposition modeling, while ZCorp works with tech adapted from inkjet printers to plough its own furrow in this fledgling market.

Mainstream success

The arrival of the new millennium brought with it a whole host of innovations in the world of 3D printing. It became clear that this tech was not just ideal for things like rapid prototyping and product development, but also had applications in areas such as healthcare, for the creation of prostheses and even entire organs.

The biggest breakthrough came in 2009, as the patents that had protected many 3D printing systems expired and so there was a flurry of activity to capitalize on this state of affairs. While it would take several years for 3D printers to become affordable for home use, they gained traction in the commercial sector and attained ongoing media coverage as a result.

Future prospects

In the past 10 years alone there have been innumerable successes and breakthroughs made thanks to 3D printing. From printing entire cars and houses to nano-scale printing, barely a week went by without headline-grabbing news emerging from this market.

Looking ahead, it seems inevitable that 3D printing will remain a staple of both mass production-related manufacturing techniques as well as hobbyist pursuits in the home. It could even mark our best hope for colonizing the solar system, showing that there is still a long way for this technology to grow going forward.