The Future of Manufacturing Started in the 1980's

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By Norah Eldredge
You've heard about it in the news, you’ve seen videos of it, you've maybe even used one, but what is 3D printing, really? I have been fascinated ever since the engineering lab at my undergrad university built one of the first 3D printers and I tried to imagine how this technology came to be and where it could take us.

Today, human ears, houses, parts for cars and DIY school projects can be printed from a huge selection of materials. In product design it is an invaluable way to cheaply and quickly prototype something. It sounds like magic, and it is, but like all things, even magic, there are parameters and rules that govern the world of 3D printing. However, these are constantly being explored and expanded in fascinating ways. 

You can clearly see the layers of plastic added to create this simple USB housing. 

You can clearly see the layers of plastic added to create this simple USB housing. 

The term "3D printing" is the popular way to summarize the vast world of additive manufacturing. Most people are familiar with subtractive manufacturing such as CNC machining–a piece of aluminum, for example, is cut away, removing material, to create a 3D object. Almost anything you can think of from before the 20th century was manufactured this way. Arrowheads, chair legs, etc. Additive manufacturing assembles a material into a 3D product by adding successive layers to form the final product. 

An example of subtractive manufacturing where material is removed to create an object. 

An example of subtractive manufacturing where material is removed to create an object. 

The earliest additive manufacturing (AM) equipment was invented in the 1980’s. In 1981, Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute developed an AM process with polymer that hardened when exposed to UV lasers. The UV could be controlled by a mask or placement of the UV. In 1984, from France to the US, the first stereolithography processes were patented and developed. These processes were similar to Kodama’s in that they used UV-hardening polymer to create layers of hard plastic based off a computer rendered code of the object’s cross-sections. 

By the 1990’s there were larger numbers of AM manufacturing processes being developed. Some used fine, sand-like plastic that melted together when hit with UV lasers, others used metal. Today, many people are familiar with fused deposition modeling (FDM) where small layers of plastic are melted onto one another following the cross-section layers of a computer-modeled object. Small supports can be modeled into the computer model to allow for different shapes or levels of detail. This method is fairly inexpensive, uses many different kinds of materials but can take a long time and can only support selective forms. 


Last spring the design lab I work and prototype in at the SFSU School of Design acquired rapid stereolithographic (SLA) printers, which allow for a whole new level of extremely fast, detailed printing. Similar to the early sintering methods of AM, but with liquid polymer instead, a 3D model is formed as the liquid polymer hardens when hit with the precise UV laser. Sped up, this looks like a 3D object is being pulled out of a shallow pool of liquid and it’s incredible to see. 

As this technology progresses and diversifies, it will impact the lives of people in every walk of life and every industry. Already, 3D printed custom casts for a broken limb are being developed, 3D printed eye-glasses for rural or hard-to reach populations and someday you may purchase a computer model of your favorite sneaker and just print it at home. Because it is inexpensive, fast and easy for someone at home to use, 3D printing is a fascinating new world of manufacturing and customization that inspires me as a designer to create products and ideas on a scale previously impossible.  

3D-printed frames for eye-glasses are thinner, more flexible and printed faster with the SLS method. You can also see the support "trees" that will be broken off, leaving just the delicate frames. 

3D-printed frames for eye-glasses are thinner, more flexible and printed faster with the SLS method. You can also see the support "trees" that will be broken off, leaving just the delicate frames.