3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that is based on the simple idea of converting a digital model into a solid, three-dimensional object. Over the years, various 3D printing technologies have been developed in this industry, with a remaining common feature of creating a physical model layer-by-layer.
The origin of this technology dates back to the 1980s when Dr. Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute created a rapid prototyping technique using the fabrication of an object layer-by-layer. In 1984, a team of French researchers patented their own patent before it was finally abandoned a few years later. In the end, it was Chuck Hull, the future founder of 3D printer giant 3D Systems, who created the first commercial patent in 1986 for a technique called “Stereolithography“.
This first development marks the beginning of what is now considered the 4th Industrial Revolution, offering applications in sectors as varied as medical, aeronautics and jewelry.
The Stereolithography process (SLA) uses a printing material called liquid resin, which is solidified with UV light. Since this first advancement, new additive manufacturing techniques have emerged over the years. In 1988, Professor Carl Deckard of the University of Texas filed a patent for a technology called Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), which is based on the fusion of a plastic powder using a laser. Soon after, Scott Crump, founder of Stratasys, developed the first 3D printers that worked by extruding plastic filament. This technique was patented as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and is now one of the most popular printing technologies due to it being easy to handle and because of its relatively low cost.
Since the 1990s, additive manufacturing has continued to take off with the introduction of innovative technologies. Some examples of these technologies can be seen with powder binding, invented by ZCorp, which uses mineral powder, a binder, and colored inks; Or, material jetting (PolyJet), created by Israeli company Objet, which takes thousands of fine droplets of polymers that are solidified through the flash of a light. When focusing on SLS, this technology gave birth to additive metal fabrication with an array of technologies such as direct metal laser sintering (Marketed by actors such as Phénix Systems, SLM Solutions or Concept Laser) or electron beam melting (E-BEAM), which was developed by Swedish company Arcam in the 2000s.
The development of 3D printing materials has varied over the years. Some have improved over time and others have developed or have just emerged with the advent of new technologies. From plastic to metal, to surprising materials such as edibles and even the ashes of the deceased; each material meets specific needs and often adapts to a particular technology.
New formats and materials are constantly being developed into different formats such as resins for DLP and SLA technologies, filaments for FDM technologies or metal powders for DMLS technologies. These innovations in material enable the development of more resistant models with a higher print quality. Currently, the market for 3D printing materials has a significant reach and is still growing. Many players are betting on its development and it is expected that by 2021, the 3D materials market will reach a value of $1.4 billion.