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Print to believe it!

The history of 3D printing from its beginnings to the modern day.

Three-dimensional printing: it is an ‘additive’ process, i.e. based on the addition of material (as opposed to processes based on ‘material subtraction’, e.g., turning, milling, machining with numerical control machines, etc.), for the accurate three-dimensional reproduction of 3D digital models, designed with CAD (Computer Aided Design) software or obtained from three-dimensional scans of already existing solid models, through the use of layer-on-layer manufacturing devices.

3D printing refers to the creation of three-dimensional objects starting from a digital 3D model, produced with dedicated softwares, and then processed to be “printed” using a 3D printer. The printer reproduces a virtual model in the real world. 

The history of 3D printing is one of the few stories of technology created almost exclusively by the genius of a single inventor: Chuck Hull, an engineer who worked in a small factory where UV lamps were produced to harden coatings. The story begins in 1983, when Hull created the first ever “3D printed” product, thus inventing stereolithography. It was a new method of creating objects by superimposing layers of photosensitive liquid polymer that hardened when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. In 1984, only one year later, perceiving the potential of this extraordinary invention, he filed the first patent for the stereolithography system (SLA). At the time, it was a real revolution for the manufacturing sector, which until then had applied a single method to the creation of new objects: subtraction. Before him, only Hideo Kodama had tried to patent a first device for rapid prototyping in 1980.

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The first ever patent for stereolitography.

Building on the success of the patent in 1986, Hull founded 3DSystems, cwhich is even today the top 3D printing company in the industry. The company was the first in the world, in 1987, to market what would become one of the most widely used rapid prototyping tool in the world: the 3D printer.

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The first ever 3D printer.

Stereolithography, however, is limited by the material it can process because it is essentially plastics, so the industrial use of objects produced with this technique could not go beyond the production of functional prototypes. Therefore, within a few years, other techniques were developed that made it possible to process other materials.

In particular, in 1988 in Texas, the university student Carl Decker patented a 3D printing system that used laser technology to aggregate thermoplastic powders and obtain the desired shape: selective laser sintering (SLS).

At the same time, S. Scott Crump was looking for an easy way to create a toy frog for his little daughter. So he melted the plastic with a hot glue gun and distributed it in thin layers. From this incredible intuition, Melted Deposition Modeling (FDM) was born. Together with his wife, he developed a machine that melted and distributed a plastic filament in layers on a plastic surface. The invention was immediately a success, so with a patent in hand, the Crump couple founded Stratasys.

From that moment on, the fundamentals of 3D technology had been set in place. The evolution of additive production became fast.  From that time on, leading 3D printer manufacturers were born, new technologies were perfected and 3D modeling tools began to spread, bringing this new technology to success.

2000 was the year of the first 3D-printed kidney, but it took another 13 years to see it transplanted into a patient.

2004, on the other hand, was the year of the RepRap Project, which consists in the creation of a 3D printer that reproduces itself: since then, it has been possible to 3D print a 3D printer.  From that moment on, hundreds of models were born which, also thanks to the crowdfunding platforms, opened the doors to the production and development of home printers.

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Adrian Bowyer (left) e Vik Olliver (right): members of the RepRap project.

Today, anyone can experience rapid prototyping with the 3D printer. These tools are now affordable and, even if you don’t have a printer, you can print your own models or those of others at any time thanks to services such as Shapeways. This service, created in 2007, is an online portal, halfway between a marketplace and a community, which gives you the possibility to upload your projects and print them using different materials. 

Among the most famous printers for domestic use are those produced since 2008 by MakerBot Industries, such as the Thing-o-Matic, the first printer sold in assembly kits and distributed worldwide.

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Makerbot Thing-O-Matic 

The most common 3D printers mainly use plastic materials reduced into wires of various sections and collected in reels: the wires are melted and extruded through nozzles and, as soon as they come out, the material solidifies, reproducing one after the other the various layers of the model, until it is completely made. The process is called additive production and is the one used by the so-called deposition printers (this is the FDM we have mentioned above).

To be able to print an object in 3D you must have a digital model drawn with 3D modelling software. If you do not have good modelling skills, there are several platforms where you can download models designed and shared in open source by the community of printers. The most famous of these platforms is Thingiverse. Alternatively, you can scan in 3D the object you want to replicate with printing. After this step you save the model in STL format and load it in a Slicing software; in these types of software you can set all the 3D printer data and many parameters for printing, such as layer thickness, infill and print speed.

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The 3D printing process.

Among the many recent uses of 3D printing, one that has attracted particular attention is certainly Contour Crafting: three-dimensional printing with cement.  This new method has opened up the possibility of applying 3D printing to the construction of houses and, more generally, to building works. Thanks to this technology, the largest concrete footbridge ever built with 3D printing, 26.3 metres long and 3.6 metres wide, was built in Shanghai in 2019. NASA, again in this direction, has stated that, in the future, they could use this system to build houses on Mars. 

The world of 3D printing is not just about construction, but is also rapidly spreading to the food industry. Food 3D printers work in the same way as traditional 3D printers, with the substantial difference that instead of plastic materials, food is extruded into dough. There are several models in circulation, some of which allow fresh food to be printed, while others require the use of pre-packaged preparations, both liquid and powdered.

The use of 3D printers in the food sector can also have positive implications for reducing waste. Pioneering in this sense is the case of Elzelinde Van Doleweerd, a graduate in industrial design from the University of Eindhoven, founder of Upprinting Food: a Dutch startup that thanks to 3D printing gives a new life to food waste. By mixing and combining different ingredients from waste, they create purees, which are then 3D printed by a food printer. These prints are then baked and dehydrated.

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Products by Upprinting Food

The 2016 experiment of Food Ink, a temporary, itinerant, pop-up restaurant, where all the food, all the utensils and all the furniture are completely produced through 3D printing in an immersive, futuristic space, is quite different. Food Ink represents a unique gastronomic experience, a conceptual experiment in which good food meets the art, philosophy and technologies of tomorrow.

Once again Lea took us on a journey of discovery into an experimental and fascinating world: that of 3D printing.  If you are curious to discover what will be the next technologies to revolutionize our world, subscribe here. 

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