The Evolution of 3D Printing (So Far)

3D printing was first invented in 1983 and then adopted by businesses starting in the early 2000s. Today, it's an integral tool for many professionals.

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By Kevin Ackerman, Staples¨ Contributing Writer

The first photocopied document was produced in 1938 — but photocopiers didn't make their way into offices around the globe until the late 1960s. Meanwhile, 3D printing was first invented in 1983 and then adopted by businesses starting in the early 2000s.

Moving faster into the mainstream than its predecessor, this new technology has quickly blossomed because of new printing techniques, an ever-growing range of new materials and easy access to the specialized printing devices.

From Basic Beginnings to Advanced Abilities

New York City-based designer Bradley Rothenberg has witnessed the technology's evolution firsthand. His work, including 3D-printed lingerie and wings for Victoria's Secret, has pushed the limits of fashion and fabrication. And his experience with 3D printing, as the field has developed, shows how far it has come in the past 10 years.

Rothenberg was first introduced to a 3D printer in 2005 while studying architecture at New York City's Pratt Institute. This first object Rothenberg printed was a model of a pavilion, produced to show how the complex, curved surface would interact with light. But the college's printer was a very low-resolution machine, and after the object finished printing, it was spent. "Actually, my first print broke," he admits. "It didn't work because I printed it too small."

But if Rothenberg had a chance to produce the miniature pavilion with today's technology, it would stand much taller. In 2005, 3D printers primarily created objects using fused deposition modeling (FDM), a method like inkjet printing in which hot material (usually plastics) is extruded through a print head. "When we first saw the 3D printer at Pratt, we realized, basically, it's just a regular 2D printer, like an HP printer," he says. "In fact, it even used HP print heads."

Printing Technologies Continue to Improve

While FDM has improved through the years — printing in thinner layers and other materials like rubber and clay — a number of alternative, more intricate methods have emerged. For instance, Plastic Jet Printing, used on the Cube 3D printer, can produce layers as thin as two-tenths of a millimeter using ABS or PLA plastics.

Rothenberg prints using Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), which uses a high-powered beam of light to melt powdered metals, ceramics, plastics and other materials into three-dimensional shapes, and is a big improvement over his college printer. For example, back in college, the smallest size Rothenberg's pavilion printer could produce in was 4 millimeters.

"Currently, the printers we use on a day-to-day basis can print down to features as small as about 0.7 millimeters," Rothenberg says. In addition, while it used to take Rothenberg eight hours to print a 4" object, now he estimates two or three hours to generate the same size.

However, the technology's next big leap may not be in printing at all — but in scanning, using cutting-edge tools like 3D scanners. "I can print a replica of your body, or I could scan a broken part of my car and send that scan to a 3D printer," says William Dante, founder of the Association of 3D Printing.

More Materials Becoming Available

Being able to output in more materials has also propelled 3D printing.

"A few years ago, you could 3D print about seven substances and most of them were plastic," says Dante. "Now, we can print in hundreds of substances — pretty much anything I can get into a consistency of a powder, I can print with."

That means plastic, metal alloys, glass, chocolate, sugar, pharmaceuticals and even human tissue are 3D printable. And innovators have used these materials to print objects as varied as wristwatch bands and human heart valves.

In addition to material options, color selection has improved. Depending on the printing method and materials used, objects can even be output in full color, with multiple hues appearing on the same object, using the same materials.

Better Printers Now on the Market

Improvements in technology don't just help devices to perform better — they often make gadgets less expensive and more accessible as well. For instance, the printer that Rothenberg used in 2005 was the size of an ATM machine, weighed hundreds of pounds and cost thousands of dollars, and his school only had one of them.

Today, 3D printers are small enough to sit on your desktop and cost only a few hundred dollars, and anyone can buy one for their home or office.

But for some users, an even better option than buying a small, inexpensive 3D printer is to not own one at all. Online printing solutions let users produce objects without having to invest in the technology whatsoever. All they need to do is upload their special file through an Internet-based service, select the appropriate output options, and press "buy." The object is output at a remote facility and delivered days later.