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3D Printing: Then and Now

20 February 2017 ...

3D printing – or Additive Manufacturing (AM) – is older than you may think.

The 1980’s is the decade where much of the technology that we take for granted today came in to being. Mobile phones, computers, email and the internet all made their first and faltering appearances in this decade of change. It is into this mix of new technologies and new processes that the new technology of 3D printing was developed and which is now coming to maturity today.

The decade began with the first attempt at patenting a Rapid Prototyping (RP) technology in Japan. This patent failed and was superseded by the first successful RP patent, which was lodged by Californian, Chuck Hull – the grandfather of 3D printing – in 1986. Hall’s successful patent was based on a Stereolithography (SLA) machine that he constructed in 1983. The patent defined Stereolithography as “a method and apparatus for making solid objects by successively “printing” thin layers of material one on top of the other”. This accretion of layers, one on top of another and then bonded together using lasers or heat, remains the basis of the various AM technologies today. The product Hull 3D printed was a humble black plastic eye-wash cup. This simple cup has become the ancestor of all the complex metal products manufactured by AM and flying in jets or racing round Grand Prix tracks today. Three years later, in 1986, Hull went on to co-found one of the original 3D printing companies. Chuck Hull’s SLA patent was followed in 1987 by the first laser sintering (LS) patent, registered by Carl Deckard and then in 1989 by the establishment of the AM machine manufacturing company EOS in Germany by Dr Hans Langer.

First ever 3D printer

First 3D Printer (http://bit.ly/2jiFrfG)

RP, using Hull’s SLA method, was taken up very quickly by motor manufacturers such as General Motors and Mercedes, but they saw it as a method to create detailed prototypes to help speed up the development of new car models. Everything was in plastic and the finish of these products was very crude. Chuck Hull said that he was not surprised by the speed that car manufacturers took up RP, but he was shocked at how quickly others such as the medical profession took up SLA. Despite this progress in adoption, Stereolithography remained a mock-up and prototype process, while it was to be the process of laser sintering in plastics and metals that would form the basis of industrial 3D printing in the 21st Century.

 

Video shows the plastics process in action.

Hull, with over 93 3D printing patents to his name, believed that it would take 25 to 30 years before his process would become part of the mainstream and a standard part of the production process. In reality however, it took a little longer for AM to become part of the production mainstream. The 1990’s and early 2000’s saw Hull’s original SLA and Deckard’s LS technologies developed in tandem with evermore flexible 3D CAD software. It has been the combination of flexible software and advances in machines which enabled AM to become a manufacturing processes that would have wide industrial use. These decades could be defined as a period of intense preparation. Commercial innovators such as 3T RPD, established in 1999, used this time to build up valuable experience, which allowed them to move 3D printing from a prototyping technology to a fully-fledged industrial process.

 

In the first five years of the 21st Century AM manufacturing technology went through a process of rapid development until it had efficient enough to begin the manufacture of production parts on an industrial scale. In 2007, as pioneers in the market, 3T RPD purchased their first Direct Metal Selective Laser Sintering (DMLS) machine and gave themselves the capacity to 3D print in metals, leading to their market leadership today. With the introduction of DMLS, AM producers were able to demonstrate the full ability of AM to improve on products produced in the traditional way.

Video showing DMLS process in action.

In 2008 a disabled man walks on an AM produced prosthetic leg, where all the parts of leg, including joints, sockets and foot are printed in one complex structure. By 2011 the first ever 3D printed UAV is created, in a collaboration between 3T RPD and the University of Southampton.  The UAV is still going strong and has recently visited the Antarctic while undertaking trials with the Royal Navy. Also in 2011 it became possible to use AM to manufacture bespoke 14K gold and sterling silver jewellery and the world’s first 3D printed car, the Urbee, is unveiled at the TEDxWinnipeg conference in Canada.

Half-way through the second decade of the 21st Century AM is being used by companies to reduce mass, simplify complexity and increase the utility of parts used in cars, aircraft and aero-engines. Airbus estimates that there will be over 1,000 AM parts in the A350 and GE forecasts that by 2020 it will have over 100,000 AM parts flying in its jet engines around the world. AM manufactured parts from 3T RPD are flying in Hawk aircraft with the Royal Airforce, flying in space and racing around the Formula 1 tracks worldwide. Metal and Plastic AM parts have moved from a technological wonder of science fiction to a highly engineered and consistent product, upon which high-tech companies rely, on a day to day basis.

As a pioneer in AM, 3T RPD continues to innovate to keep itself at the forefront of Industry 4.0, of which AM is a key component, in the UK and around the world. In 2015 they pioneered the manufacture of AM products from pure copper and in 2017 produced the UK’s first AM part to receive a PPAP Warrant for inclusion on a production car. AM from 3T RPD is spreading its wings across the globe and what began as 3D printing has become Additive Manufacturing where it has broken out of its origins in Rapid Prototyping in the industrial sector. AM is proving its worth in the aviation, space, automotive, engineering, medical, creative and even the domestic sectors. This year will continue to see more AM developments and who knows where AM will be in another 30 years’ time.

About 3T RPD

3T RPD is a leading Additive Manufacturing production and 3D Printing company. Our production facilities build components for customers in a range of industries including aerospace, motorsport and the medical sector. To find out more or request a quote, call us on 01635 580 284 or email enquiries@3trpd.co.uk .

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