The History Of 3D Printing

Custom gifts can be made in a variety of ways using a mix of advanced tools and skilled craftwork, which when used together can make a once in a lifetime present.

One of the most recent and most fascinating technologies that has helped with this is the 3D printer, which has become a popular way for small businesses, hobbyists and digital crafters to create models, emblems, keychains and other designs.

Interestingly, whilst the technology has only been used by a larger number of people over the past decade, the principles behind 3D printing have been around for a much longer time.


Additive Vs Subtractive

The wider concept of 3D printing is sometimes described as ‘additive manufacturing’, which has led to a bit of confusion about which technologies count as 3D printing, particularly since there is a parallel technological development known as computer-aided machinery (CAM).

The easiest way to differentiate the two is that 3D printing is additive because it works by adding layers of material sequentially on top of each other until a complete design is made, whilst CAM takes a base material and uses drills, bores, saws and blades to cut away from it until you get a complete design.

Many engraved gifts would use CAM or a similar subtractive manufacturing method, whilst models and more elaborate designs tend to be made using 3D printing technologies, although as the technology gets cheaper the use of 3D printing becomes more widespread.


From Fiction To Reality

Like flying cars, laser beams and wristwatch phones, 3D printing started as the dream of futurist designers and science fiction writers, and much like all three of the other technologies, would surprisingly start to take shape as the 20th century moved on.

The first practical step towards this was the Liquid Metal Recorder, a patented device made by Johannes F Gottwald, that described a machine that could create 3D models and patterns on demand.

David E H Jones would expand on the concept of 3D printing in a 1974 article called Ariadne in the New Scientist Journal, but most of these concepts, whilst expanding, would remain theoretical until the 1980s.

The first attempt at designing a fully functional 3D printer took the form of the XYZ plotter, devised by Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute.

His idea was to develop a thermoset plastic that could be dispensed using a plotter and then hardened using ultraviolet light, but a lack of interest from his superiors meant that Mr Kodama’s invention was abandoned before the patent could be filed.

However, by the end of the decade, there was not only a breakthrough but also a commercially available 3D printer on the market.

In 1984, Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corporation filed a patent for a similar 3D printing process to Mr Kodama, using stereolithography, which cured light-sensitive plastic onto a cross-sectional pattern, allowing for the development of 3D designs.

Mr Hull, along with Bill Masters, Alain Le Méhauté and other pioneers in the 3D printing space lay the groundwork for the first-ever commercially available 3D printer in 1987. The SLA-1 was available for a mere $300,000 (£223,000).

By comparison, entry-level 3D printers today can cost as little as £200.