3D Printing – Where Did It All Start?

3D Printing – Where Did It All Start?

By David Pollard

3D Printing, a way of making objects directly from computer models, is growing in adaptability. Several industries are adopting 3D printing from customized medical devices to paintings to satellites. But, where did it all start?

Additive Manufacture (AM) is the general name for the processes which build the product up (additive), as opposed to cutting out of a solid block (subtractive). Using Additive Manufacturing, companies can create complex shapes that would be impossible to machine traditionally – think hollow and interlocking objects. Humans have been creating 3D shapes for millennia, but the modern automated additive methods are founded on two ideas from the late 19th Century – Topography and Photosculpture.

Gyroid, by Bathsheba Grossman. Image courtesy of Bathsheba Grossman

AM – Older Than You’d Think

Topography was proposed to create 3D relief maps, depicting hills and mountain ranges in proportion. Using a series of wax plates, contour lines from a regular 2D map were cut out, creating stacks of surface cross sections. When smoothed, the surface was then covered with paper and annotated, a concept later becoming known as Laminated Object Manufacture.

Photosculpture was conceived to create realistic replicas of any object by through multiple photos at different angles; a technique pioneered (and patented) by François Willème. Using the silhouette extracted from the photos, the sculptor would carve out the intersection of the silhouette and the material, before rotating the product to carve the view from the next angle. As a labor-intensive process, further automation would come with the onset of computing – the concepts of photosculpture carrying into the modern area of 3D Scanning.

A similar process required just one photo to produce a 3D object; light was projected through a negative into a gelatin slab to achieve different cure depths based on the transparency of the negative. Hutchinson Frederick filed the patent in 1922, and used this method for production of bas-reliefs. With the onset of computing, the level of complexity was about to increase again…


The process of creating a photosculpture from photographs. Source.

Fig. 3 shows the process of taking the original image, and Fig. 4-6 depicts the placement of the production of the bas-relief. Source.

Moving Away From Analog

A patent in 1951 brought about the idea of stereolithography, where light (ingeniously controlled through a cathode ray tube and analog circuit) was projected to harden a photo-sensitive colloid. By ensuring the attachment to the layer above, successive layers would be added through increasing the vertical motion of the plate, with each layer hardened in a different shape. This key patent for the stereolithography process was referenced in a large proportion of later patents.

The next key development was a move away from resin-based systems, with a powder process similar to modern technologies; a localized heat source (e.g. a laser) was used to melt and fuse particles together, representing a move towards materials more suited for engineering, able to produce parts with more complex geometries and superior mechanical properties to the previous resins.

In 1992, Stratasys filed the original patent for Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) entitled “Apparatus and method for creating three-dimensional objects”, embodying the idea of extruding molten plastic from a gantry system. Based on this work, the RepRap project began, bringing open source desktop printing to the world.

What’s Available Now?

With AM technology being developed across many separate companies, there are different names for the same process (Stratasys had trademarked “Fused Deposition Modelling” The RepRap project used “Fused Filament Fabrication”). To help in understanding the different methods, an ISO/ASTM committee evaluated the current 3D printing technologies, and concluded there are seven process categories:

Process (and a brief video) Description
Binder jetting: Liquid bonding agents (glues) are applied to a powder bed to bond together for each layer.
Directed energy deposition: Thermal energy is directed at the material as it is being deposited; similar to a welding machine
Material extrusion: A material is dispensed through a movable nozzle; this is the official term for Fused Deposition Modelling and similar methods.
Material jetting: Using a style similar to inkjet printing, droplets of build material are deposited.
Powder bed fusion: A bed of powder is selectively heated to fuse particles together. Subsequent layers of powder are then placed on top and then leveled. This process was originally patented here.


Sheet lamination: Sheets of material are cut and then bonded together, based on the
original idea of Topography.
Vat polymerisation: Also known as stereolithography, this uses light to solidify photosensitive
resins to produce each layer. This process is based on the original
photo-glyph patent.

Where Next for 3D Printing?

This brief history of key AM patents has shown the development has been mostly driven by commercial interests. The market for 3D Printing has been rapidly expanding with the entire AM industry was valued at $1.2bn in 2008, and valued at $2.2bn in 2013 the industry is rapidly growing at a rate of 28.6% from the previous year. The recent (2016) high profile acquisition of Arcam AB and SLM Solutions Group by GE to the tune of $1.4bn shows large companies are willing to get involved in this new technology. While the ideas have been developing for over a century, the economic landscape of the industry has driven, and will keep driving, progress in 3D Printing towards higher quality, increased variety of materials, and lower machine and operating costs.

If you have any questions or would like to know if we can help your business with its innovation challenges, please contact us here or email us at solutions@prescouter.com.

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