3D Printing, History of
3D Printing is a form of manufacturing that adds materials together in layers to form an object. This is in direct contrast to subtraction manufacturing, which cuts away at a material to form an object. Primarily using plastics and/or metal, this form of manufacturing is rapidly developing and handling new, exotic materials. Its increasing adoption rate will have a big impact on the processes of distribution and production.
Beginning in the 1980s, this technology has had an interesting development as it has reached its more mainstreamed status. The individuals that contributed to this interesting industry are varied across the globe. First being referenced as Rapid Prototyping, this industry donned the title “3D Printing” in the 1990s and has slowly become an almost ubiquitous household term today.
The History of 3D Printing
The 1980s is known for its retina-burning bright spandex pants, go-go dancers, and massively teased hair, but lesser known is the fact that it was the same decade that 3D printing was born. It flew under the radar of the public for several decades in almost complete obscurity as it incubated. During that time they were more often to fall under the title of Rapid Prototyping (RP) technologies. Actually, 3D printing is interchangeable with quite a few terms. There is the previously mentioned Rapid Prototyping but there is also Rapid Manufacturing (RM), Additive Manufacturing (AM) technologies, Solid-Free Form technology (SFF), or Direct Digital Manufacturing (DDM).
What is so fundamentally different about 3D printing is that it uses an additive manufacturing approach, which is where precise amounts of materials are bound together in exact layers to form an object, versus the conventional subtractive manufacturing method, which removes materials to create products. Much like the varied titles that can be referenced to this form of manufacturing, so too are the hands that formed it. The history of 3D Printing is varied and expands the narratives of some very eclectic people.
Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute published the first working account of a photopolymer additive manufacturing system in 1981 (Tomioka and Okazaki 2014). Mr. Kodama’s inspirational moment struck him over a year earlier while he was riding a bus home, reflecting on an exhibition in Nagoya where he was able to observe a machine capable of making letters utilizing liquid resin applied to a glass surface. The machine he witnessed at work was targeted towards the newspaper industry; however, upon reflection Kodama realized that he could harness this to create three-dimensional objects and began work on his concept (Tomioka and Okazaki 2014).
It was in early 1980 that he set off to work applying what he saw at the exhibition to a new way of creating items. After a viable system was brought to fruition, he began to show his peers his innovative concept while starting the process of filing a patent; however, without the interests or support of his peers, doubt soon overcame him and he quietly disregarded the effort. In a regrettable move, he did not complete a review period necessary for receiving the patent. Kodama is said to have created a two-story miniature house the size of a human palm by manipulating thin layers of resin; impressively, the 3D model held rooms, a spiral staircase, and even a dining room table (Tomioka and Okazaki 2014). Despite his tremendous personal success with the concept, Mr. Kodama felt disheartened and thought his concept was nothing more than a novelty, rather than the beginning of something revolutionary. Reflecting now, he says that: “I should have worked harder to make people understand the significance of my research results”(Tomioka and Okazaki 2014).
Other individuals, Alain Le Mèhautè, Olivier de Witte, and Jean Claude Andrè, filed a patent in 1984 on the Stereolithographic process but was abandoned by the French General Electric Company (now Alcatel-Alsthom) and CILAS, a subsidiary of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Consortium for a “lack of business perspective” (Mendoza 2016). It seemed that this technology was doomed in its cradle as many overlooked its potential, while the inventors that produced the machines languished knowing something was brewing beneath the surface.
This is not to say that the people who contributed did not receive credit for some of the foundational research and thought processes that were fundamental to this industry. In 1995, Hideo Kodama was chosen to receive the Rank Prize, a privately funded British award for inventions, and was credited with creating the first of the key technologies for unlocking the rapid prototyping industry (Tomioka and Okazaki 2014). He shared this award with Charles Hull, our next inventor to highlight.
A few years after Kodama on the other side of the world we have Charles Hull, or Chuck, as he often goes by. This man is considered the father of 3D printing and is often where you hear the story of 3D printing begin. In the 1980s, he was working for an ultraviolet lamp company that added a layer of hard plastic onto surfaces, such as tables and countertops. After gaining permission from his superiors, Hull began to tinker after hours with a way to use the UV light to create tangible 3D objects from a Computer Aided Design (CAD) software, primarily utilizing the materials and science familiar to him through his daily work. He would experiment with photopolymers to lay the foundations of what would later cement him as the Father of 3D Printing. To which, there has been contention to, and not just those hailing Hideo Kodama or the French as originators of the concept.
The material that Hull decided to use is called a Photopolymer. These materials are a type of plastic which harden and soften under different intensities of UV light. After a few design iterations, Hull created a finalized machine that manipulated minuscule plastic layers of photopolymer and each of these small layers combined to form the entire object. A simple cup, only a few inches tall, was the first item to be fabricated and represented a fundamentally different approach to our general notion of production (Davis 2014).
Through those long nights of toil, he invented the Stereolithographic (SL) process and filed for a patent in 1984, receiving it in 1986. He actually filed the patent 3 weeks after the French team and even further behind Kodama, but due to technical requirements and timing Charles Hull became the first person to patent and create a usable 3D printing method. What also lends to this standing as an industry founder is the creation of the Standard Tessellation Language (STL) file, which are still widely used today.
In the early 1990s, the Stereolithographic Apparatus, or SLA-1 machine, was created by 3D Systems with Charles Hull as one of the founders. Although with some error, this machine showed that complex parts could be built overnight or within a few hours using this method.
Primarily driven by tremendous cost, these cumbersome contraptions were more useful for transportation and other larger commercial industries. It was said that Charles Hull was obsessed with helping Detroit regain its competitive advantage as an influx of higher quality Japanese imports convoluted the market and moved manufacturing jobs away (Davis 2014).
Charles Hull was anticipatory of the gestation period that this type of technology would require while reaching full market awareness and publicity. In early interviews, he would project that it would take 20–30 years for the technology to find itself into more mainstream applications; however, it is with a combination of surprise and excitement that he now sees how this technology has grown in its capabilities (Davis 2014). His astute judgments, from projecting the amount of time the technology would require to become well-known to his imaginative nature that enabled him to contrive his invention, had helped to cement him as the father of this industry.
There were some, just like for Hideo Kodama, who felt that Charles Hull has been given too much credit for the creation of this industry while inadvertently leaving others in the dark; however, it takes a combination of belief in your product or process, dedication to create a company, and a little luck in the right market opportunity to make as large and noticeable of an impact as he has. As the saying goes: “to the victor go the spoils” – this is no less for Charles Hull. There are more people involved in the beginning of this industry than just he. So, we are going to wind back the hand of time a bit to capture our next inventor in the right light.
It was on a river trip. Back when I had the whole nine yards, the Volkswagen Van [and] the long hair, so when you’re on the side of the river… and you’re all laying there and looking up there at the sky at all those little dots up there – they call them stars. Why can’t you make things in outer space? That’s how it started; it started by looking at a star. (The Father of 3D Printing n.d.)
While he may have conceived his device early on, there were sets of personal circumstances that inhibited him from pursuing his musings of this concept until a few years down the road. Coincidently enough, when he did, he found it was around the same time that Charles Hull was also submitting his patent materials. That year was 1984, July 7th of 1984 to be exact. The date is special for William Masters as it was the date for which he filed the patent for his Ballistic Particle Manufacturing technology – patent #4665492 (USPTO Patent Full Text and Image Database n.d.-a). Most particularly, it is also a full month ahead of Charles Hull’s patent #4575330, which was filed on August 8, 1984 (USPTO Patent Full Text and Image Database n.d.-b). Charles Hull’s patent application was accepted and published before the patent that Masters had submitted. To be realistic, it takes much more than a patent filing date and speculation of a concept to receive the credit of founding an entire industry.
Albeit, Masters contends that the birthplace of 3D printing is in North Carolina and also attributes the fact that Hull created a company along his patent almost immediately as a reason for his success. This is in contrast to Masters, who was not actively participatory until 1988 when he created Perception Systems, which later became Ballistic Particle Manufacturing (BPM) Technology. It was not until 1991 that his company, then newly titled as BPM Technology, obtained funding from Palmetto Seed Capital to create the machine based on his patent (The Father of 3D Printing n.d.). This was years after Charles Hull and other inventors had already forged a path ahead of him by creating different machines, processes, and were already selling machines based on their concepts.
In addition, it is distinct to note that even if the technology that Masters had created was to be as widely adopted as Hull’s then there is doubt that it would have fared as well because it only creates structurally weak, hollow models. While Bill Masters may not have revolutionized 3D printing industry as a whole, he still filed a respectable amount of patents for technologies outside of 3D printing and also within this industry. Some of these patents include extruding fluent materials, 3D printing using pin arrays, and for the use of fluent material droplets (The Father of 3D Printing n.d.).
Selective Laser Sintering and Fused Deposition Modeling
As previously mentioned, there were many machines that also proliferated during this time as we come crashing into our next process. During the 1980s, there seems to have been an itch in many inventors’ mind for machinery such as this, as our next innovator Carl Deckard comes into our crosshairs. Although many of these individuals were in completely different areas of the country, each seemed to be enraptured by automating the creation process behind three dimensional objects from the computer; however, just like their unique locations, each approached the concept in very different ways.
To say that Carl Deckard was young when he began his pursuit of this technology is an understatement. A freshman in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas in Austin, he spent his nights working in a metal shop that relied on the new, at the time, technology of Computer Aided Design (CAD) and began to daydream. He chose his major of Mechanical Engineering because he found that it was: “The closest thing to majoring in inventing” (Selective Laser Sintering and Birth of an Industry 2012).
Deckard was working for a facility in 1981 called TRW Mission, which crafted parts using CAD software; however, many parts were created from castings, or the castings themselves came from handcrafted casting patterns and he began to see that there was a potentially large market for creating casting patterns out of CAD Models. He envisioned lasers tracing themselves over fine layers of dust to bind together materials. By the time his senior year rolled around the only thing he needed to make his musings a reality were the parts to do so. An Associate Professor by the name of Dr. Joseph Beaman took the young student under his wing, then described as young and hungry, and the two began a trek to create this new form of machinery manufacturing.
Deckard began his transition into graduate school and, as luck would have it, the Mechanical Engineering Department was also moving to a new building, meaning that the budget had room for some equipment purchases. Beaman and Deckard took advantage of the opportunity and together they submitted a budget for the $30,000 worth of materials required to bring the idea to life. They affectionately dubbed the early stages of the Selective Laser Slithering (SLS) machine “Betsy,” as it developed through the mid- to late-1980s. Although at first it was slightly crude method of production, as Deckard refilled a small box with powder by hand and ran the computer which powered the scanner on top of the table. The first parts that were created were simply hunks of plastic to demonstrate that the concept could actually work. As he labored, though, more precise parts began to be produced by regulating the laser with the computer by writing code; upon evaluation, it was found that the parts produced were beginning to be of usable quality. At that point, Deckard called upon Beaman to write it up for his Master’s degree because he had just created an entirely new and viable machine. He was none the wiser that this would lay the foundation of some incredible processes in 3D printing technologies in the decades to follow.
Deckard stayed at the University of Texas to continue refining the idea, receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation. They enclosed the rudimentary aspects of the machine into an electrical box, added a counter-rotating roller to level the powder between layers of the laser sintering (which was being done by hand before), and after the method had been fully polished the parts began to coming off the machine at a higher quality. It was then that the machine started to show the makings of something more versatile than just creating casting patterns.
Paul Forderhase, another graduate student, joined the efforts as the concept matured from being an undergraduate dream to a graduate project and was now gaining enough momentum to seek becoming a commercial company. An Austin business owner by the name of Harold Blair paired with an Assistant Dean of Engineering and occasional adjunct professor by the name of Dr. Paul F. McClure. They had become interested in the technology and the company was named Nova Automation – after Blair’s existing company called Nova Graphics International Corporation. Deckard estimated that they would need $75,000 in startup capital to get off the ground, which was doubled by Beaman, and then doubled again by those overseeing the project bringing their estimated startup cost to $300,000 – this was just to keep the interests of Blair and McClure (Selective Laser Sintering and Birth of an Industry 2012).
After a few hit and miss opportunities for funding with several companies through the 1980’s and 1990’s, one of which actually involved William Masters from the then Perception Systems, Nova Automation received funding from the Goodrich Corporation. With this funding they were able to keep Blair on board and they renamed themselves the DTM Corporation. It was a reference to the term Desk Top Manufacturing or some have said it is a reference to the words “Deckard, Texas, and McClure”.
Unfortunately, even after their hard efforts the technology was seen as a reflection of an industry still in its infancy and did not fare well. The majority shares were sold to a group of private investors, who then turned around and sold the company and concepts to 3D Systems, which allowed them to acquire key patent rights to the SLS technology. For 3D Systems to now hold the rights to SLS and SL technologies has played to the company’s power position as the “world’s leading provider of additive manufacturing technologies.”
When it comes to market dominance, Stratasys is one of the few companies to challenge 3D Systems when it comes to their lion’s share of control. Scott Crump, founder of Stratasys, patented the Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) technology in 1989 (Perez 2013). Not only is it the most familiar form of 3D printing for the public, it was actually a pursuit with adorable roots. In 1988, Crump decided that it would be a wonderful idea for him to make a toy frog for his young daughter using a glue gun loaded with a mixture of polyethylene and candle wax (Perez 2013). With the support of his wife, and several burnt plastic pans later, he soon became obsessed and took his project to the garage – where he devoted many long weekends to it. He invested into digital-plotting equipment (which cost about $10 K) to help automate the process and the first prototypes of the toy began to be churned out.
His wife prodded and pushed for him to either turn this affixation of his into a viable company or give it up because he had already spent tens of thousands of dollars to produce one supposed toy for his daughter (Perez 2013). By that time though, it had evolved into a larger project, a mission, a higher calling than simply creating a plastic trinket toy for his beloved. He saw the potential of a machine like this as he clacked away many nights in his garage.
The first of the Stratasys kits were $130,000 and not viable for the regular consumer market, nor really even for small businesses (Perez 2013). Much like 3D Systems, their efforts were revised and they began to focus selling his machines to larger corporations that had the funds necessary to fuel his refrigerator-sized machines. They liquidated all of their family assets and poured everything into their company to get it to that point. However, to even fulfill the first orders they would require the support of venture capitalist – they found a company willing to invest in the concept called Battery Ventures. The company took a 35% stake in the company for $1.2 million (Perez 2013).
Since then, Stratasys has evolved to be one of the largest companies in the world for 3D Printing – often battling for glory alongside 3D Systems. Scott Crump is a formal Mechanical Engineer who heads this company and he is credited with Charles Hull et al. as one of the founders of the 3D printing industry. In 2013, Stratasys strategically bought out MakerBot – who has become a household name for the home desktop 3D printer.
EOS and the Evolution of Selective Laser Sintering
This machinery was a global phenomenon during its development, Hans Langer formed Electro Optical Systems (EOS) GmbH in Germany around the same time that patent applications for the first forms of this technology began flying around the United States in 1989. Still true to this day, EOS machines are recognized for their superior quality of output that utilizes the Laser Sintering (LS) process. Their first ‘Stereos’ machines were sold in the 1990’s, making them the first European provider of high-end rapid prototyping systems.
As to what motivated Langer to strike it off into unknown territory such as this was actually the cloudy doubt cast by others which enabled him to see the light of potential. At the time he was working for a company called General Scanning, which evaluated additive manufacturing technologies at a project level, and they decided not to invest into developing the technology. Langer remained unconvinced of their decision. He firmly believed that the technology would be the future. He formed his own company in 1989 and set off to create a new and viable industry. By the amount of sheer success that he has encountered, time has shown that his judgment was sound.
If the previously mentioned words “Laser Sintering” were familiar, you were keen. The technology was originally created in the United States and had an interesting pathway to this German-based company. When Carl Deckard’s company failed and 3D Systems gained the U.S patents on the SLS technology, they also entered an agreement with EOS where 3D Systems would purchase a product line from EOS, which was directed at SL technologies, while EOS would be able to take over global patent rights on the SLS technology. This included other interesting developments of Laser Sintering, such as applications of metal manufacturing.
Under the same umbrella that Carl Deckard worked under, Suman Das also developed applications for SLS technology at the university, except he used metal powders for his Master’s and Ph.D studies. It may come as a surprise to no one that he was also under the supervision of Joe Beaman. If that name sounds familiar it is because he was the same man who aided Carl Deckard in his pioneering in the original Laser Sintering concept. Under the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), Office of Naval Research (ONR), and Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) sponsorship, Suman designed and built two additive manufacturing machines and aided in co-inventing two laser-based additive manufacturing processes in metal for specific use in high performance aerospace components (Selective Laser Sintering, Birth of an Industry).Thus, enabling the ideas from a Texan student to reach the global market through a German company.
The development in technology in Germany can be dizzying due to massive amount of cross collaboration between key companies. An offshoot process to SLS called Selective Laser Melting was initially developed in 1995 at the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology (ILT), two Doctors by the names of Dr. Dieter Schwarze and Dr. Matthias Fockele, who then formed F&S Sterelithographietechnik GmbH.
Around the same time, a company by the name of TRUMPF Group began to work with their own brand of this technology based on the ILT research. What also makes them a powerful contender in the 3D printing market today is their extensive history of precision laser systems, and the fact that they also happen to hold exclusive rights to ILT DMLS patent portfolio. DMLS is Direct Metal Laser Sintering, which combines SLS and SLM properties. This technology was created in 2002 with a collaborative agreement between EOS and TRUMPF where they decided to share key technology with the goal of enabling more growth between the methods, based partially on the research that TRUMPF Group leveraged from the ILT.
Always eyeing advancement, in 2008 EOS/TRUMPF announced an agreement with a company called MCP (who was itself partnered with F&S Sterelithographietechnik) for patent licenses that expanded EOS and TRUMPF laser-sintering patents, specifically the machinery that enabled titanium and aluminum powder manipulation; however, the patents did not extend to North American and when MCP attempted to sell a machine, the Realizer, in the USA through 3D Systems they landed in some hot water with EOS. They had technically performed patent infringement and EOS pursued a lawsuit against them. After settling the lawsuit for an untold amount of money, MCP (now MTT) went through some hand changing and consolidation to reform itself as a private company under SLM Solutions GmbH, who now sells their own brand of SLM machinery.
3D printing is bounding forward quickly, crafting vehicles, organs, and even homes in its wake. The decades will blur by and the innovation will exceed our expectations, as they did for Charles Hull. 3D printing is set to carve an interesting niche for itself, uniquely performing where traditional methods fail, while also turning the table of development. While it may truly never replace mass manufacturing, the changes it makes in our supply chain and the way we view manufacturing as a whole can cause us to change as creators and consumers. This is where the power of 3D printing lays, in its ability to enable creativity and innovation in places we thought it was stagnate, to bring increased individuality to the products we consume, and rethink our manufacturing process now that we are brought more intimately to it.
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