History of 3D Printing

By Tahnee Marquardt and Emmi Zheng

Additive manufacturing (AM) is the process of building a physical object using modeling data1. The object is digitally sliced into layers, and these layers are fused together one by one. In the early days of the technology, AM referred to the process carried out by larger industrial machines, while 3D printing was done on a smaller scale. Now, AM and 3D printing are used interchangeably.

The early roots of 3D printing lie in photo-sculpture and topography2. In 1860, French artist François Willème patented a photo-sculpturing method. In this process, the subject is placed in a circular room and photographed simultaneously by 24 cameras equally spaced around the room. Willème then traced the 24 profiles using a cutter attached to a pantograph. Tracing the profile’s shape would simultaneously cut the wood. He assembled these layers of wood to create a photo-sculpture.

In 1892, J.E. Blanther patented an AM-style method of making topographical maps2. This method consisted of stacking a series of wax plates, each of which was cut along the contour lines corresponding to their layer. A paper was pressed between the positive and negative forms, creating a raised relief map.

The birth of 3D printing as we know it today can be traced back to at least 1984, when Charles “Chuck”  Hull invented stereolithography, a printing method that uses UV light to create a 3D object by building up layer after layer1. At the time, he was working for a company that used UV light to put thin layers of plastic veneers on tabletops and furniture, but Hull realized that he could possibly modify and use this technique to print solid objects3.

For the next year, Hull experimented with his idea after hours, and finally developed a system that used photopolymer, a material that turns from liquid to solid when light shines on it and whose shape could be traced and layered many times. Hull then founded 3D Systems in 1986 to develop his new technology further and to make it more commercial4. The first stereolithography apparatus was sold in 19885.

However, Charles Hull was not the only one working on 3D printing technology in the 1980s. One of today’s prominent AM technologies was developed by S. Scott Crump in 19891. This method has many names, including Fused Deposition Modeling, Extrusion, and Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). FFF 3D printers look like computer-automated hot glue guns. Their process is as follows6:

  1. An object file is either downloaded from an online source or created as a computer-aided design (CAD) file.
  2. The object is saved as a Stereolithography (STL) file, which enables it to be digitally sliced into layers.
  3. The STL file is transferred to the 3D printer and a plastic filament is fed into the heated printhead.
  4. Melted plastic is ejected from the printer head layer-by-layer onto a platform in x-y-z axis movement. This continues until the object is complete.

The Ultimaker 2 and Ultimaker 2+ in the Lawrence University Makerspace use this FFF method with PLA plastic.

Hull rightfully predicted that it would take at least 25 years for his technology to make it into people’s homes, but since 1984 3D printing has passed huge milestones, some of whom are listed here7:

  • 1999: A 3D synthetic scaffold is implanted in a human patient who is undergoing a urinary bladder augmentation.
  • 2002: A working miniature 3D kidney is engineered that can filter blood and produce diluted urine. This milestone leads scientists to investigate 3D printing technology for organ printing.
  • 2006: The first Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) machine makes it to the mainstream market. The SLS machine uses a laser to fuse materials into 3D objects. This breakthrough enables mass production, customization, and on-demand manufacturing of industrial parts.
  • 2008: The first prosthetic leg is 3D printed and implanted (including knee, foot, socket, etc.).
  • 2009: Open-source hardware becomes available to the public and allows people to create and print their own 3D objects inexpensively.
  • 2011: The first 3D-printed robotic aircraft is manufactured. 3D printing allows it to have elliptical wings, improving aerodynamic efficiency.
  • 2012: A three-dimensional prosthetic lower jaw is printed and implanted into an 83-year old woman suffering from a chronic bone infection.

It is not difficult to see that 3D printing technology is advancing fast and is on its way to make it into every household. The Netherlands are currently working on the first 3D printed house, and companies in the United States recently showcased the first 3D-printed food items (such as ravioli and chocolate) and a 3D-printed battery3.


1. Williams, Linda D. “Additive Manufacturing or 3d Scanning and Printing,” in Manufacturing Engineering Handbook. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2015.

2. Bourell, D. L., Beaman, J. J., Leu, M. C., & Rosen, D. W. “A Brief History of Additive Manufacturing and the 2009 Roadmap for Additive Manufacturing: Looking Back and Looking Ahead.” Proceedings of RapidTech 2009: US-TURKEY Workshop on RapidTechnologies, pp. 1-8, Istanbul, 2009. http://rktngstcc.easycgi.com/haber/2009/rapidtech-workshop/presentations/Presentation02.pdf

3. Hickey, Shane. Chuck Hull: the father of 3D printing who shaped technology. The Guardian, June 22, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jun/22/chuck-hull-father-3d-printing-shaped-technology

4. “Charles Hull: Stereolithography (3D Printing).” Inductees. Accessed April 21, 2016, http://invent.org/inductees/hull-charles/

5. “History of 3D Printing: The Free Beginner’s Guide.” 3D Printing Industry. Accessed April 21, 2016. http://3dprintingindustry.com/3d-printing-basics-free-beginners-guide/history/

6. Hughes, Bill, & Wilson, Greg. “3D/additive printing manufacturing: A Brief History and Purchasing Guide.” Technology & Engineering Teacher 75, no. 4 (2015). Retrieved from Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (last accessed April 21, 2016).

7. Maxey, Kyle. Infographic: The History of 3D Printing. Engineering.com: Inform, inspire, entertain, September 3, 2013. http://www.engineering.com/3DPrinting/3DPrintingArticles/ArticleID/6262/Infographic-The-History-of-3D-Printing.aspx