3D Printing: Past, Present and Future

Published: 03 Oct 2013

3D printing is the one of the latest innovations generating buzz in the engineering world… but where did it all begin? And will it affect your career?

3D printing milestones

Being able to create whatever you want, whenever you want seems like a concept taken out of sci fi but could soon be a reality. The applications for engineers are obvious; from testing theories before manufacture to pushing your ingenuity and creativity as far as it can go, the future is looking bright.


With everything from weapons to human body parts currently being created in 3D printers, it’s amazing to think that the technology started off with the humble inkjet printer in 1976. It wasn’t until 1984 that the first 3D object was printed, when a process called stereolithography was created to run engineering tests before committing to spending money on manufacturing.


In the 1990s the technology really began to take off and show potential. The first SLA (stereolithographic apparatus) machine was created by 3D Systems and involved a process that used a UV laser solidifying photopolymer; a liquid that makes the 3D parts layer by layer.

Later that decade, engineered organs began appearing in labs across the world. The first organ, a bladder, was implanted into a human after producing a man-made framework covered with the patient’s own cells. This technique lowers the risk of rejection and makes the chance of success far higher.

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In 2002, scientists successfully managed to engineer a miniature, yet fully functional, kidney. The kidney was able to filter blood and produce diluted urine in the animal it was transplanted into. The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine carried out the research and development of the organic 3D printing.

A few years later the technology was pushed into the open-source environment, which deployed a 3D printer that was capable of printing most of its own components. It was developed by Dr. Adrian Bowyer from the University of Bath, in an attempt to bring 3D printing to the masses. This was developed further in 2008, when a fully self-replicating printer, named Darwin, was launched.

The emphasis on bespoke and on demand-products increased towards the end of the decade, with new techniques such as selective laser sintering (SLS) and Objet allowing for a broader utilisation of different materials, such as elastomers and polymers. Everything from prosthetics to industrial parts and artistic objects began to appear. Again, medical breakthroughs were the most astonishing, with the first person ever to walk on a fully 3D printed prosthetic leg and a blood vessel being created on a 3D bioprinter.


Consumer technology and vehicles were areas of hot development as the 2010s rolled around, which saw an eco-friendly car created entirely via 3D printing. Engineers also put their minds together and designed the world’s first printed aircraft, which took seven days and cost £5,000, despite including [normally] high-cost elliptical wings. The aerodynamic design allowed for more efficient flight by minimising the induced drag.

The versatility of the technology and the way it can integrate easily into our daily lives can be shown by two of the most recent examples of 3D printing tech. Printing in precious metals like silver and gold could revolutionise everything from jewellery markets to creating intricate circuitry and wiring. Another step forwards, again on the medical side, was revealed when a woman with a bone infection had her entire jaw replaced, with a view to stimulate.


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