If you have been to a maker fair or school in the last few years, then you may have seen 3D printers in action. But when did this manufacturing technology first emerge and why was there so much hype?
3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing, where the object is created by laying down successive layers of building material until the desired form is reached. Early concepts for this type of manufacturing emerged in the late 1970s after the invention of the inkjet printer, but it wasn’t until 1986 that the first patents for working designs were filed. Early 3D printing technologies were used by industry for rapid prototyping, by artists, and even medical applications, however the cost and size meant their use was limited.
It wasn’t until 2008 when the RepRap project, founded by Dr Adrian Bowyer, released the first open source desktop printer, Darwin, that this technology became accessible to a wider group of enthusiasts. RepRap’s Darwin was designed so that it could print copies of itself, with any components not constructed from plastic being readily available at the local hardware store.
This particular Rep Rap was built and used by artist Louis Pratt and is the first of its kind in Australia. Although difficult to build, being open source (it’s plans and software are freely available on the internet) meant that the RepRap was supported by a large online community of enthusiasts who shared ways of hacking the original designs for a variety of artistic purposes, such as this vase from Alterfact who used a Delta JK Ceramic 3D printer. Aterfact built their Delta JK Ceramic Printer using open source plans developed by Jonathan Keep, a potter who modeled his design on a ceramic printing hack of the RepMan 3D printer (a later RepRap model).
But not everyone had the confidence or knowledge to build their own 3D printer and the demand for an affordable all-in-one kit was there. The ‘Cupcake CNC’ by MakerBot Industries was designed and developed in a maker space. MakerBot established itself as a company committed to the philosophy of the open source hardware movement.
At the time of its release this printer was the only accessible and affordable option for individuals and community groups with limited technical skill or knowledge. Its release marked a shift in the 3D printer market from high end industrial rapid prototyping to small scale experimental design and production. As demand increased other companies developed consumer offerings, many of which were based on the open source plans and coding of the MakerBot 3D printers. MakerBot was forced to make a choice, accept this competition or patent your designs to maintain a commercial advantage. MakerBot investors encouraged a move away from the open source community and MakerBot Industries became a commercial company. The loss of knowledge sharing and adaptability available through open source designs has reduced the customers’ ability to troubleshoot and enhance this technology for their own purposes. Some people argue that it has slowed the development and popularity that 3D printing enjoyed in MakerBot’s early days.
As a new technology, 3D printing had many flaws but it still managed to capture the imagination of a range of users. 3D printing technology was quickly adopted by makers and tinkerers as well as architects and designers. These days printers are capable of printing in two different materials simultaneously and can be used to create intricate structures out of metal that are impossible using traditional methods. This has created a new depth for a number of industries and even changed the way today’s students build and create. But as a home technology it is still in its infancy, so I am looking forward to seeing how it will develop.
Written by Nina Earl