“3D printing”, “Rapid prototyping”, “Additive manufacturing” all buzzwords you have probably heard before, but perhaps didn’t really understand. Don’t worry, PAI to the rescue! In this series of blog posts we will attempt to demystify the world of 3D printers and explain what they are, how they work and where they came from. Our goal is to make it so understandable that even my mom can understand how 3D printing works!
So before we get into the specifics, let’s take a quick look back into history and learn about how 3D printing started. Believe it or not the world of 3D printing started with… tables. Yup, dining tables started this industry. To be a little bit more precise the top coating of the table. Chuck Hull, an engineer in Colorado, was working at a company that was adding durable coatings to the top of tables using some special materials. This material or, resin, was a liquid that would harden into a very strong coating when it would come in contact with a specific type of light, this is called curing. These materials are called photopolymers are usually a type of liquid plastic that would change properties when hit with UV light. Chuck had an epiphany moment and decided he could do more with the same idea of curing resin with UV light. He did some tinkering in his garage and tested the idea. In 1984 he patented a process called “stereolithography”, the first type of 3D printing.
So how do you go from resin and UV light to a 3D printed object? Layers. Imagine you have a tank of special goo (resin) and you shine a very precise laser down into the tank. Everything the laser hits instantly turns the liquid into a solid (this is known as curing). You draw a circle into the resin forming a ring of hard plastic, then pour some more liquid into the tank covering the hardened circle with more liquid. You then draw the same circle again. Since the light the laser projects has a very fine point, only small amounts of the resin gets cured at a time and turns solid. The resin that wasn’t hit by the laser is left uncured and stays liquid. You repeat this process layer by layer until you have created a hard plastic tube! This is 3D printing.
Chuck decided that this idea was worth pursuing so in 1986 he founded a company called 3D Systems, creating the first 3D printing company. Chuck and his team spent years tinkering to develop the right resins and lasers until they created the SLA-1, the world’s first 3D printer!
These early systems were both complicated and expensive, but eventually they figured it out and became one of the two powerhouse 3D printer companies that are still around today. 3D Systems has since expanded its product offerings into a couple of different printer technologies, but their main products still use the the same technique, stereolithography, that started the company.
The other major player, Stratasys, was founded in 1988 by Scott Crump and his wife, Lisa, in Minnesota. Scott decided he wanted to make a toy frog for their daughter. To do so, he used a glue gun loaded with a mixture of plastic and candle wax and created the toy, by hand, in the same fashion as the stereolithography technique (layers, baby!) invented a couple years earlier. He then decided to automate this process and eventually patented “Fused Deposition Modeling” or FDM. Stratasys was formed based on this technology and like 3D Systems, they took a while to perfect the technology. Through years of engineering and purchasing other companies, Stratasys has become a leader in the 3D printing space.
Now that you know the history of 3D printing, how did it become the buzzword that you hear today? The answer to this question is a little bit less clear cut, but it boils down to something called “RepRap”. The RepRap project was started in 2004 by a mechanical engineering lecturer, named Adrian Bowyer, who wanted to create a low cost 3D printer. Up to that point, Stratasys and 3D Systems were dominating the 3D printing market but their focus was on higher-end commercial systems. These printers cost at least $50,000 and the material they used was even more expensive. Adrian wanted to create a machine that could “self replicate”, which means it was able to make some of its own parts. So, the project was called “replicating rapid prototyper” or RepRap for short. The RepRap project is entirely free and 100% open allowing anyone with the time or money to download the software and build the printer. The first couple generations of these printers weren’t very good, but there has been a tremendous amount of work on the project and the printers coming out of the RepRap project these days are very impressive. Although these printers tend to be less reliable and take a lot of tweaking to get everything working, once everything is properly set up, the results can be very impressive.
In early 2009, three volunteers on the RepRap project decided to create their own RepRap printer. This printer would be sold as a kit that you assemble yourself and they decided to call the kit “Makerbot”. Makerbot has a long and tumultuous history that I won’t get into in this article but they were the first company to take a RepRap design and sell it to the masses. They had sold around 22,000 printers when Stratasys decided to purchase them. After the purchase, Makerbot exploded in sales and have eclipsed over 100,000 printers sold (as of 2016) making it the first company to hit this milestone.
Building on Makerbot’s success in the marketplace there have been hundreds (and possibly even thousands) of 3D printer companies popping up trying to compete in this space. All of this competition has really driven down the price and given the consumers more choices than they could ever want.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of 3D printing check out the documentary “Print the Legend”; it’s fantastic and currently available on Netflix (as of the writing of this article).
Alright, now that you know the history of how 3D printing started, how do they actually work? Stay tuned for part 2 to find out.