What is 3D printing? – History, How it Works, and Applications

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, creates 3D objects from a digital design. Instead of making the object all at once, a 3D printer builds it up step by step. This happens by adding material, like plastic, liquid, or powder, in layers that gradually come together. It’s like building a model out of tiny building blocks, following instructions from a computer.

This revolutionary method not only accelerates the design to production timeline but also allows for unparalleled customization, making it possible to create objects that were previously unimaginable due to the constraints of traditional manufacturing techniques.

The 3D printing process contrasts with subtractive manufacturing, which involves taking away layers or parts of something. Subtractive manufacturing involves cutting or hollowing out plastic or metal pieces with, for example, a milling machine.

In this article, we will explore the concept of 3D printing, its history, how it works, its applications, and its impact on the world.

Table of Contents
A Brief History of 3D Printing

How Does 3D Printing Work?

Applications of 3D Printing

Recent Advancements

Video Explanation

A Brief History of 3D Printing

  • The early 1980s

In the early 1980s, the foundation for 3D printing was laid. Japanese inventor Hideo Kodama pioneered a layer-by-layer approach using photosensitive resin cured by UV light. He described it as a “rapid prototyping device.”

According to an article from 3D Insider, Dr. Kodama attempted to patent his creation, filing for a patent in May 1980. However, his application was denied due to missing the one-year deadline for filing the full patent requirements.

Shortly after Dr. Kodama’s work in Japan, three French researchers attempted a similar method involving lasers to turn liquid into solid objects. They had a keen interest in stereolithography but had to give up their project as there was not enough business interest in 3D printing then.

  • 1986 – Hull’s patented Stereolithography (SLA) machine

In 1986, a visionary inventor named Charles (Chuck) Hull made a pivotal breakthrough in 3D printing. He created the Stereolithography (SLA) machine, a device capable of turning digital computer designs into real, physical objects.

In Hull’s patent (U.S. patent US4575330, granted on March 11, 1986), the invention is described as providing “a new and improved system for generating a three-dimensional object by forming successive, adjacent, cross-sectional laminae of that object at the surface of a fluid medium capable of altering its physical state in response to appropriate synergistic stimulation, the successive laminae being automatically integrated as they are formed to define the desired three-dimensional object.”

This was a game-changer in the evolution of 3D printing technology, a spark that ignited the industry we know today. It set the stage for the entire 3D printing field.

  • 1990-2010: Growth

During the 1990s, various companies began exploring and experimenting with these emerging technologies. A significant milestone occurred in 2005 when ZCorp introduced the Spectrum Z510, which marked the debut of the first high-definition color 3D printer. CAD tools also became more accessible, simplifying 3D model creation.

During this period, 3D printers were still expensive and post-processing-intensive. However, innovations and refinements were constant. Open source initiatives, like the RepRap Project in 2005, democratized 3D printing, allowing people to build their own printers.

In 2008, a significant moment in the history of 3D printing occurred: the introduction of the first 3D-printed prosthetic leg. This event garnered global attention for its groundbreaking implications. Unlike traditional prosthetics that often required time-consuming adjustments, 3D printing created personalized prosthetic legs tailored to an individual’s unique needs and anatomy. This innovation showcased the technology’s potential and brought hope to many people needing prosthetic limbs. It marked a turning point, demonstrating the practical and humanitarian impact of 3D printing in healthcare.

3D Printing at Manchester Metropolitan University
Manchester Metropolitan University in England a 3D printing workshop – PrintCity. It boasts state-of-the-art printers that can create virtually anything. (Image: mmu.ac.uk)

How Does 3D Printing Work?

  • The Process

Below is a very simple description of what happens when a 3D printer creates an object:

  • The device creates an object by depositing or adding layers of material. It does not cut or subtract pieces from a metal, wood, or plastic block.
  • The computer file that tells the 3D printer what to do must convert the data into many slices. This is because the printer creates things layer by layer or slice by slice.
  • A 3D printer can take minutes to hours or even days to complete something. How long it takes depends on how complicated the object is.
3D printing a jet engine
The Howard Community College Makrbot 3D printed this jet engine turbine. (Image: Wikipedia)
  • Different Techniques

According to Protolabs, there are many different techniques used in 3D printing, namely:

  • Stereolithography (SLA)
  • Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
  • PolyJet
  • Digital Light Process (DLP)
  • Electron Beam Melting (EBM)
  • Multi Jet Fusion (MJF)
  • Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)
  • Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Applications of 3D Printing

Not many people use 3D printers today for personal use in their homes. In today’s scenario, 3D printing is used in manufacturing, medical devices, construction, space exploration, and other sectors.

The food industry is developing techniques to create 3D objects we can eat. The fashion industry is also interested in the technology. Fashion designers are experimenting with 3D printers to make dresses, shoes, and bikinis.

Researchers say that one day 3D printers will function in the industry, our homes, education, sports, and most other sectors.

Imagine being able to print spare parts for your car, a new lightbulb, or even your lunch. It probably won’t be long before we can replace our clothes by printing them.

  • Prosthetics

3D printing has transformed prosthetic manufacturing by simplifying the customization process, allowing for quick design modifications – enhancing patient comfort and satisfaction.

  • Pharmaceuticals

3D printing has the potential to produce drugs with customized shapes and controlled ingredient distribution, offering tailored delivery profiles to meet individual patient requirements. Spritam®, levetiracetam produced by Aprecia Pharmaceuticals, has already been successfully 3D printed.

Spritam describes the process on its website:

“1. The powder blend is deposited as a single layer

2. The binding fluid is applied, causing the particles to bind together

3. The process is repeated several times to create the finished product”

  • Clothing

Designers are now using 3D printers to produce garments and accessories. The world’s first “digitally-made digitally-customizable 3D printed skirt,” dubbed “The Organic Skirt project” by Julia Daviy, was showcased in March 2019 in Miami.

It’s a dynamic and innovative area in the fashion industry.

  • Structures

On November 21, 2022, the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center (ASCC) unveiled a fully bio-based house that was 3D printed.

Image Source: The University of Maine. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Hub and Spoke program funded the project, with support from MaineHousing and the Maine Technology Institute.

The 600-square-foot structure features 3D-printed floors, walls, and roof – made entirely of wood fibers and bio-resins.

Recent Advancements

In September 2022, Stanford engineers designed a new method of 3D printing up to 10 times faster than the quickest high-resolution printer currently available. The 3D printer they developed can also use multiple types of resin in a single object.

“This new technology will help to fully realize the potential of 3D printing,” said Joseph DeSimone, the Sanjiv Sam Gambhir Professor in Translational Medicine and professor of radiology and of chemical engineering at Stanford and corresponding author on the paper. “It will allow us to print much faster, helping to usher in a new era of digital manufacturing, as well as to enable the fabrication of complex, multi-material objects in a single step.”

A Futuristic 3D Printer making a car.
Image created by Market Business News.

This breakthrough paves the way for the development of advanced 3D printing materials, offering enhanced properties such as increased durability and flexibility, thereby expanding the technology’s applicability across a broader range of industries.

This innovation also facilitates the creation of more sustainable and environmentally friendly printing processes, significantly reducing waste and energy consumption in manufacturing practices.

Video – What is 3D Printing?

This video presentation, from our sister channel on YouTube – Marketing Business Network, explains what ‘3D Printing’ is using simple and easy-to-understand language and examples.