Decoding the Past, Present and Future of 3D Printing

“The great growling engine of change – Technology.” Imagine the ability to print a car of your choice, customizing its looks according to your will and boasting about your possession among your friend circle. Imagine a world where none of us are limited by any manufacturing requirements, where custom-made creations of different equipment are no longer a far-fetched concept. This world hasn’t yet come to fruition, but we are getting closer every single day thanks to the unparalleled advancements and technological potential in the field of rapid prototyping and 3D printing.

For better or, potentially worse, 3-Dimensional Printing has made stupefying strides since Chuck Hall came up with the foundling idea in the mid-80s. With over three decades gone by since the birth of that idea, much has changed within the printing industry. The most notable change during this timeline was the digital revolution in the late twentieth century, causing a paradigm shift that led to the rise of inkjet and laser printing technology. Today, we are in the midst of yet another printing revolution, wherein everything from guitar strings to guns, artworks to artificial limbs can be made or rather reprinted – thanks to 3D printers.

With its transforming abilities to change lives across construction, healthcare, automotive, food and military sectors – 3D printing is attracting unprecedented attention from all industries. Add to that, predictions of 3D-printed organs and 3D-printed buildings floating around the news columns of websites and blogs have created an infectious buzz that was hardly present earlier. The stark contrast in terms of both popularity and usage of 3D printers throughout the years is a tempting timeline, and the same has been assembled together for a vivid understanding of the Past, Present and the Future of 3D Printing.

The Past – Born From a Spark of Inspiration

As with any history, it’s probably for the better to start from the start itself. For 3D printers, the start cultivated from the minds of Charles (“Chuck”) Hull when he invented the stereolithography apparatus (SLA) back in 1983. Three years later, Charles co-founded 3D systems Corporation and the first commercial RP system arrived on the market a year later. With that, 3D printing tech – then referred to as “rapid prototyping” (RP) technology – emerged into the market, oblivious of the unimaginable potential that it possessed.

Although the surge in popularity for 3D printers was mediocre at best back then, with evident skepticism regarding its usage, there were various inventors who began working in the same area. Most notably, Carl Deckard of the University of Texas filed a patent in 1989 for the SLS RP process, as well as Scott Crump, co-founder of Stratasys, who filed a patent for FDM technologies. The efforts of these pioneers prompted the formation of a range of RP companies in the early 90’s, thereby facilitating the continued introduction of new and innovative technologies in the 3D printing industry.

But “Additive Manufacturing” still remained a largely isolated sector, until medical researchers began exploring the possibilities and opportunities of 3D printing. 2004 saw the development of the first self-replicating 3D printer with the creation of the RepRap open source project. In January 2009, the first-ever commercially accessible 3D printer hit the market stands and was followed by MakerBot, which started shipping desktop 3D printer kits at the end of the very same year. As days went by, more accessible 3D printers came into the fray; kick-starting the new era of 3D printing renaissance. From 3D-printed chocolates in 2011 to Urbee’s 3D printed car a year before, or Amazon’s launch of a 3D Printing Store in 2014, and continued advancements in other industries unfurled the hype surrounding 3D printers, in a way that wasn’t prevalent before.

The Present – Catering to the Customer’s Convenience

Our world is changing at a rapid pace with new and unimaginable feats being accomplished each passing day due to the advancing technologies. But we are already aware of that change, so it’s better to shift our focus from consumerism and inherent social impatience, and jump straight into the biggest driver of this change – convenience. People want what they want and they won’t be waiting till today, rather they want it yesterday itself!

Just like any other sector, the 3D printing industry is also affected by this prevalent demand of providing more in a faster way but for fewer amounts. New materials and processes have enhanced the capabilities and lowered the cost of 3D printers, making it affordable even for small businesses and individual consumers to create their very own 3D objects.

One of the trademarks of this current generation, split between cost and convenience, is the preference of paying for something even if one can do it on their own. In this present landscape of 3D printing, consumers are on a constant lookout for convenience through the eyes of cost-effectiveness. Industries are continuously re-examining the manner in which they operate to achieve such a feat of convenience; possible all because of the technology that is readily available at the tip of their fingers.

By the year 2016, 3D printing or additive manufacturing industry grew by 25.9%, surpassing the $5 billion mark as a result. This rise in numbers is by no means a small feat for an industry that was once perceived with skepticism and doubt a few years back. Nowadays, a wide-range of astonishing things is being accomplished with 3D printing and things are bound to ameliorate in the near future. Among the ever-growing list of recent accomplishments, the most notable feat was WinSun printing a five-storied residential building (yes, you read that right!). They even topped that feat by building a 3D printed 1,100 square meter villa, which came in with both internal and external decorations.

With such an incredible rise in development in recent years, it’s hard to comprehend what the future potential holds for 3D printing.

The Future – One with Endless Possibilities

The collar of the future is a hoodie – 3D printing is one such revolutionary technology that will change the mundane landscape of the future with its limitless capabilities. Currently, 3D printing is spreading its wings in several directions and all pointers are indicating that it will continue to expand in many other areas in the near future.

NASA is already exploring the potential idea of printing food in space for astronauts to consume. They have even awarded research contracts to several companies to further push this possibility into a reality. This can radically help astronauts to tackle the food storage issues while they are in space.

Another area where 3D printing is predicted to sprinkle its magic formula over on is the medical industry. Medical researchers are utilizing printing technology to produce organic tissue by using cells grown in bio labs. They have even claimed that this will eventually lead to the creation of the entire set of human organs, a possibility that was unimaginable before due to the complicated vascular systems and other oblivious obstacles.

Most recently, an all-new method of 3D printing – Continued Liquid Interface Production – has garnered attraction that involves materializing different objects out of a pool of liquid and can be shockingly completed 100 times faster than the current available methods. This kind of 3D printing methods can even be capable of producing stents, which can help in the treatment of weak arteries within the complex human body.

It’s been three decades since 3D printing came into the market; since then its rise has been meteoric, to say the least. Now, additive manufacturing is moving at a fast pace and it’s not even clear to the experts on when a mass adoption of the same will occur. But, it’s broad scope of potential in different industries and the imminent availability of lower cost 3D printers will turn this technology into a household word, if adequate investments and research are made in the long run. After all, technology makes more technology possible and 3D printing is the pioneer of possibility.