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3D Printing
What’s almost 40 years old but looks brand new? Believe it or not, it’s 3D printing. Yep, additive manufacturing technology has been around since the Reagan era. Here’s a brief tour through the history of 3D printing.

1981–1999: The Infancy of Additive Manufacturing

In 1981, Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute published his account of a functional rapid-prototyping system using photopolymers (more on those in a minute). A solid, printed model was built up in layers, each of which corresponded to a cross-sectional slice in the model. Sound familiar?

Three years later, in 1984, Charles Hull made 3D-printing history by inventing stereolithography. Stereolithography lets designers create 3D models using digital data, which can then be used to create a tangible object.

The key to stereolithography is a kind of acrylic-based material known as photopolymer. Hit a vat of liquid photopolymer with a UV laser beam, and the light-exposed portion will instantly turn into solid piece of plastic, molded into the shape of your 3D-model design. Needless to say, this new technology was big news to inventors, who could now theoretically prototype and test their designs without having to make a huge upfront investment in manufacturing.

Bill Clinton on the saxophone to represent 1992 in the history of 3D printing

In 1992, Bill Clinton played sax on The Arsenio Hall Show—and 3D Systems (Charles Hull’s company) created the world’s first stereolithographic apparatus (SLA) machine, which made it possible to fabricate complex parts, layer by layer, in a fraction of the time it would normally take. That same year, startup DTM produced the world’s first selective laser sintering (SLS) machine—which shoots a laser at a powder instead of a liquid.

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