3D printing has come a long way since its humble beginnings 31 years ago. Pioneer Charles Hull dreamed of bringing 3D printers to the public, with hobbyists and educational institutions alike becoming 3D printer consumers. Now that the price barrier has broken below $1000, the market is wide open and accessible. With the rise in affordability, barriers to entry for designers and consumers of 3D printing are falling rapidly. Even educators are embracing the potential of 3D printing technology in the classroom. In a recent New York Times blog post, Glen L. Bull, professor and co-director of the Center for Technology and Teacher Education stated, “We believe that every school in America could have a 3-D printer in the classroom in the next few years.”

The Rise of 3D Printing

The history of 3D printing began in the 1980’s with an inventor working on developing lamps for UV-curable resins when he conceptualized the earliest working iteration of 3D printing technology. Charles Hulls’ “stereolithography” concept was based on the premise of computer-controlled successive layering of material. In its original capacity, the starting material was a photopolymer, an acrylic-based liquid that would convert to solid plastic upon contact with a UV laser beam. Layer by layer, complex parts could be fabricated, enabling inventors the opportunity to create prototypes of designs without the manufacturing investment. By the late 1990’s, the 3D train had left the station, with milestones being set in the defense, biomedical, automotive, aviation, and do-it-yourself industries. In 1999, synthetic human bladder scaffolds were printed, then coated with cells and implanted into humans. As documented by Autodesk’s Line//Shape//Space, historic milestones in the medical field that came from 3D printing included the fabrication of a functional mini-kidney, a prosthetic leg, and human blood vessels.

In the mid-2000’s, the RepRap Project provided an open-source platform for 3D printers that could print their own parts. 3D printing was coming to the masses, helped along by Kickstarter crowdfunded projects as well as open-source enthusiasts willing to freely share their designs. Such projects have inspired many early adopters to customize and improve upon prior design, thereby bringing down the cost. One such innovator, 83-year old Hugh Lyman, met a challenge to devise an open-source extruder capable of converting cheap plastic pellets into valuable filament starting material. Lyman’s ingenuity, as well as that of other 3D printing enthusiasts, is directly responsible for putting 3D printing within the grasp of the average consumer.

Evolution of Starting Material

In 1992, Hull’s startup company DTM set in motion the first in a long line of new materials, substituting a metal powdered material for a liquid photopolymer with the first selective laser sintering (SLS) machine. The first SLS to become commercially available was in 2006, but like other 3D printers of its time, it was vastly out of reach to most consumers. Startup Objet (now part of Stratasys) pioneered the first machine to print in multiple starting materials, allowing more strength and functionality to printed products. As the list of starting materials evolves, so does the list of uses for the final product. The application of gold, silver, and titanium as starting materials enabled the self-design and printing of one’s own wedding rings. Ceramic and gypsum are now also available as starting materials, lending rigid and delicate qualities to finished product.

Movers, Shakers, & Innovators in 3D Printing

Stratasys and 3D Systems are among the most prevalent and diversified 3D printing companies. Stratasys acquired the desktop 3D printer unit manufacturer MakerBot in 2013, and merged with Objet in 2012. Many smaller companies have sprouted up, but more than 50 of them have been acquired by 3D Systems.  In the realm of biomedical boundary-pushing, Advanced Solutions Life Sciences is using composite 3D tissue printing to build a functional replacement human heart. Behind the scenes in academia, researchers are working to increase the resolution of printed features without compromising speed.. And lastly, to showcase just how far 3D printing has come, Dutch firm MX3D is tackling an ambitious project of building a functional 3D printed bridge across an Amsterdam canal.