3D printing or additive manufacturing was first thought of in the 1980s for the production of rapid prototypes. The idea was conceived to create fast and cheap prototypes for testing products.
The Beginnings of 3D Systems and Stratasys
Dr. Kodama from Japan was the first to apply for a patent for Rapid Prototype (RP) technology in May 1980. However he failed to file the application in time and so lost the patent rights. The first patent was filed for the stereolithography apparatus in 1986 by Charles Hull who had invented the SLA machine in 1983. He went on to co-found the company 3D Systems which developed the 3D printing technology in several different avenues including Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). At around about the same time Carl Deckard of the University of Texas filed a patent for the SLS RP process. The patent was finalized in 1989 and later acquired by 3D Systems. Also in 1989 co-founder of Stratasys, Scott Crump filed a patent for Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). The patent was finalized in 1992.
3DP and EOS
In the 1990s the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed and trademarked a process which is called 3D Printing or 3DP. Since then MIT has given six companies the license to use the term 3DP in its productions. In Europe Hans Langer founded a company in 1989 called EOS GmbH in Germany. They developed several ideas for the SL process and laser sintering (LS). This company is recognized as being a major contributor to the development of 3D printing technology specifically in the field of Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS).
The 3D Printer in the 90s and Beyond
Other companies which also contributed to the development of 3D printing in the early days were Z Corporation and Object Geometries. Each of these pioneers has given us innovative new products in the 3D world. The 1990s saw a surge of R&D activity in the field of 3D printing but the companies which have survived and gone on to become giants in the industry are EOS, 3D Systems and Stratasys.
In the 2000s major developments have included the founding of Envisiontec in 2002; the creation of RepRap as an open source self-replicating 3D printer in 2004; the establishment of ExOne in 2005; the first commercially available 3D printer in kit form based on the RepRap concept in 2009 and the acquisition of Makerbot by Stratasys in 2013. Stunning developments have included the 3D printed car, house, clothing and living cells.
The process of 3D printing and the refinement of the machines continues to develop and improve. We have not seen the ultimate 3D printer yet and are still looking forward to a 3D printer which is eco-friendly, affordable, fast, clean, easy to operate and can create any object with any material. With 3D printing the best is yet to come!