Looking over our website, I noticed that we don’t, in fact, have much on the history of additive manufacturing (AM). It is important to understand the past - doubly so in AM as much of the more recent boom (and bust) is a direct consequence of patents expiring and larger companies struggling to realign themselves as a host of new companies enter the scene.
Although there are several different ways to 3D print, the most popular technologies currently used in additive manufacturing were all developed in the early eighties. The first 3D printing process appeared in the Japanese edition of the IEICE Transactions on Electronics vol.J64-C in April 1981. The article, entitled "A Scheme for Three-Dimensional Display by Automatic Fabrication of Three-Dimensional Model," outlined two methods for creating three-dimensional objects using controlled ultraviolet light exposure on a photo-hardening polymer. Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute had created the first 3D printing processes.
The second milestone didn’t take place for another three years. Alain Le Méhauté, Olivier de Witte, and Jean Claude André filed their patent on July 16th, 1984 for the stereolithography process. It would be another three weeks before Chuck Hull, co-founder of 3D systems, filed his own patent for stereolithography (SLA). However, the French inventors were abandoned by the French General Electric Company (now Alcatel-Alsthom) and CILAS, a subsidiary of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Consortium. The claimed reason was "for lack of business perspective".
Chuck Hull, working in parallel, felt the technology might have some “business perspective”. Although awarded the patent for the stereolithographic process, Mr. Hull’s primary addition was the design and development of the STL (Stereolithography) file format, now widely accepted and used by 3D printing software. Developing many of the digital slicing and infill strategies common to many processes today, Mr. Hull and his team at 3D systems were able to commercialize the SLA technology.
The SLA-1, the first commercially available 3D printer
A couple of years after the first SLA processes were developed, S. Scott Crump invented and filed a patented “Fused Deposition Modeling” technology (FDM) in 1989 with his wife and Stratasys co-founder Lisa Crump. FDM is trademarked by Stratasys - as such, many industry professionals choose to use FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) instead.
While 3D Systems and Stratasys gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s on the plastics front, AM processes for metal 3D printing (i.e. selective laser sintering, direct metal laser sintering, and selective laser melting) mostly went by their own names and industries.
By the mid-1990s, metal printing technologies were starting to come into their own, although most metal production depends heavily on more traditional cutting, casting or stamping processes. Creating a 3D shape out of raw metal is mostly associated with using an automated cutting tool to remove material from a larger block. Sintering is a very different process - more akin to welding - and as such enables more complex geometries and parts that would be impossible to make by just cutting. By the early 2000s, sacrificial and support materials had also become more common, enabling additional object geometries.
AM costs have traditionally been high, with equipment ranging in the $60k or above range. For most of its existence, usage has been limited to high cost and low volume products, such as prototyping parts in aerospace, automotive or for custom medical devices.
By 2005, additive technology patents were starting to expire. Dr. Adrian Bowyer, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath (England), founded the RepRap project, aimed at creating a low-cost 3D printer capable of replicating itself. On 9 February 2008, RepRap 1.0 "Darwin" successfully 3D printed over 18% of its own components. RepRap had designed a 3D printer that cost less than $650 in materials. Within just a couple of years, RepRap derived designs and usage were widespread within the tech, gadget, and engineering communities. Low-cost 3D printing companies started to emerge.
The RepRap 1.0 “Darwin”
At this point, things got interesting. The AM market has grown from just over $750 million in 2005 to over $5.1 billion in 2016, with an average compound annual growth rate of 33.8% for the last three years.
When Type A Machines entered the scene in January 2012, we counted some 14 other AM equipment manufacturers. At the time of writing in September 2016, this number has risen to 431. That’s only as many as we have counted - not even the most dedicated industry analysts know the exact number. Averaging the last 18 months, the industry has seen two new 3D printing startups every week.
Contrasting the Gartner Hype Cycle report from 2011 with that of 2015 gives some idea of a market moving rapidly through a peak of inflated expectations, into the trough of disillusionment and out towards productivity. Late 2014 and early 2015 saw the peak (Figures 1 & 2), and early 2016 saw the bounce for industrial AM, though not yet for consumer devices.
It’s worth noting that although much new innovation is happening, the expiration of patents has been and still is a major driver in the industry. Technologies previously only available to Fortune 5000 companies are now available to small businesses, and as a result, new markets, techniques, tools and applications are emerging. Many of the metal AM patents are expiring these next couple of years, so expect a drop in price and increase in availability as new metal AM products emerge targeting light industry and the small and midsize businesses (SMB) market.
Without RepRap and the expiration of key FDM patents, Type A Machines would not exist today. We would not have been able to bring about the Series 1, and without that, we would not have been able to build the Print Pod system. The Print Pod is part of history too: It’s the first massively parallel additive manufacturing system. I believe it is heralding a significant switch in AM from big, bulky “Mainframe” systems to redundant, scalable “server” systems aimed at flexible, mass-customized, high volume production.
The Type A Machines Print Pod System
At Type A Machines, we see AM adoption coming in three waves: impacting design, production, and finally consumers. The first adoption by designers is already upon us, with desktop 3D printers now an affordable and widely available tool for engineers, researchers and product developers wanting to physicalize their digital designs. The second wave is in the very early adoption stage. GE, Siemens, HP, Mattel and others are all making significant investments in 3D printing products and services, adopting AM as part of their production, supply and service chains. The third wave, consumer adoption, will likely follow close on industrial production, bringing with it additional economic, social, environmental and international consequences.
Sitting on the inside of this industry, it seems that the AM industry stands on the cusp of full-blown industrial adoption. It is often hard not to get the feeling that we are part of something momentous - a fundamental change in how humanity conceptualizes, makes, and delivers the things that make up our habitats. And it’s speeding up, not slowing down.
So buckle up everyone: we are in for a wild ride.