3D printing is one of the most innovative developments in manufacturing and engineering in recent years. It has helped reduce costs, increase efficiency, and help improve on existing designs across many different industries, including the aerospace, automotive, and even the medical fields.
Chinese company WinSun has 3D printed an entire building, and we may soon see even more incredible feats from this technology.
But how did it get started? And how has it changed over time?
3D printing was originally conceptualised in Japan in the 1980s, thanks to Hideo Kodama, an engineer who created the technology to print layers of material resulting in a 3D product, but who was denied a patent.
In France, the French General Electric Company also created a similar method to create 3D objects, but the company didn’t see a use for the technology and scrapped the project.
However, in the mid-1980s, an American engineer named Charles Hull created a prototype for a process called stereolithography (SLA). His design took acrylic-based materials and turned them from liquids to solids using ultraviolet light. He patented the SLA printer and is now often called the father of 3D printing. At this time, a 3D printer as it existed then cost around $300,000 to purchase.
Now that the foundation of 3D printing existed, other engineers and businesses began to innovate and expand on the technology.
New processes like micro casting allowed 3D printing to be used for metals, not just plastics, opening up new areas of production and manufacture, widening the use for the technology into new industries.
However, the cost of 3D printing was still expensive, limiting the technology to low-volume product design and creation. As such, it was a natural fit for prototyping and was used extensively in the aerospace industry.
The biggest blocker to 3D printing going mainstream was the cost. In England, a professor named Adrian Bower designed and created a low-cost 3D printer, called the Darwin. Almost a fifth of its components could be 3D printed themselves, and the printer cost less than $750. Before long, they were all over the world.
They ceased to be only an option for businesses, with hobbyists and amateurs getting 3D printers at home, allowing them to design and create with ease.
Businesses could use the technology to generate new replacement parts faster than ordering them, meaning inventory shortages were no longer a concern.
By 2014, the 3D printing industry generated over a billion dollars in revenue and has only continued to grow since.
When the pandemic first hit, 3D printing played a key role in the fight against the virus. Ventilator components, respirator valves, and even protection equipment were created through 3D printing, allowing hospitals to create their supplies instead of relying on a supply chain that was stretched to breaking point.
3D printing has grown incredibly fast over the last two decades and will continue to play an important part in how we manufacture products at scale.
According to some estimates, the global 3D printing market is expected to surpass 40 billion US dollars by 2024. This is in part thanks to the ease with which we can now create complex components, but also for the incredible things we can now 3D print that would have been impossible to even imagine in the past: for example, we can now print viable human organs.
With young engineers learning the technology early on in their careers, we’ll likely see even more innovations in 3D printing in the future.
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