Why was 3D Printing Invented? History, limitations and the future of 3d Printing

why was 3d printing invented ?
why was 3d printing invented ?

Hearing about things being 3D printed is not a surprising occurrence anymore. It is quite common among people of various backgrounds to know what this concept is and how it works.

A valid question that might pop into everyone’s head is why 3D printing was invented in the first place? Reviewing the history of 3D printing, I found that,

3D printing was originally invented to create small-scale models (or ‘prototypes’) for testing before committing to an actual product. It was intended to be a rapid prototyping technique that could be beneficial in avoiding mistakes while manufacturing, which could prove to be budget and time-saving.

How was 3D Printing Invented?

Blue print Prototype

Charles ‘Chuck’ Hull is recognized as the ‘father of 3D printing.’ In 1984, he invented a method similar to 3D printing we have today called stereolithography.

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This method was developed for rapid prototyping and it proved to be very cost-effective and time-saving than the traditional manufacturing approach.

Stereolithography lets creators build 3D digital models, which can then be used to create a physical object with a photosensitive resin in a layer-by-layer manner.

After the invention of stereolithography (SL), Charles Hull went on to create and release the first commercial 3D printer in 1986 called the stereolithography apparatus (SLA).

The materials used for SLA are particularly interesting. Using liquid acrylic-based materials that turn solid when hit with ultraviolet light, the finished creation is an intricately designed piece made of plastic.

This printer enabled industrial designers and engineers to cut cost, time, and error making of manufactured goods because it offered them the rapid prototyping technique.

Like all great things, the beginning of the 3D printer from Hull’s mind’s eye was carried forward and further developed by two of the other major personalities in the 3D printing world: Carl Deckard and Scott Crump.

What is a Rapid Prototyping System?

A city scale-model of Xi’an, China

According to a blog article by the European Subcontracting Network, “…before the term 3D printing was coined, it was known only as rapid prototyping.”

So, to understand the reason behind its invention, we should first try to realize how 3D printing is a practice of rapid prototyping.

Rapid prototyping technology is when any model or product undergoes fast creation with the help of a three-dimensional computer-aided design (CAD).

This means that any digital designs you create with the help of a computer can be 3D printed as small models or parts of a product that you can experiment with first before manufacturing the entire piece.

Scale models of buildings, houses, cars, or even robots are one good example of prototypes that can be produced via 3D printing, to give an early vision of the product before the final manufacturing.

So, in essence, 3D printing was invented to create a faster, more easy-going, and affordable manufacturing method using digital files for creating tangible items.

Also check out our article on What Is Vat Polymerization In 3D Printing? SLA & DLP : Pros and Cons

The Development of 3D Printing

3D printed prototypes by an Ultimaker 3D printer

Although 3D printing was initially focused on making prototypes, small patterns, or parts, the application of this technology saw greater development in the later years.

The formation of Hull’s company 3D Systems also greatly influenced the additive manufacturing industry and things really took a boost after that.

After the invention of stereolithography or SL, more developed forms of 3D printing appeared; two of them being Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) patented by Carl Deckard and Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) by Scott Crump.

These forms used a similar process of additive manufacturing but with different base materials. The type of product and the application of the products also varies across these technologies.

Here is a table to briefly compare some of the 3D printing technologies over the years:

3D Printing TechnologyType of Material RequiredWhat Can be MadeWho Can 3D Print
Fused Deposition ModelingThermoplastic filamentLow-cost models and prototypesHobbyists, individual creators, or manufacturers
Selective Laser SinteringPolymer powderAdvanced industrial productsHuge industries like automotive, aerospace, medical, etc.
StereolithographyPhotosensitive resinDetailed, intricate patterns and parts, prototypes and moldingsEngineers and manufacturers that need to test and verify products
3D printing technologies comparison Table

With FDM, 3D printing was brought into the home environment – where not only big corporations and industries could use the technology to produce 3D objects, but an enthusiast would have the opportunity to do the same.

The FDM technology is cheaper and the FDM printers are more accessible and user-friendly. This gives the general public an opportunity as well to learn and practice 3D printing out of interest – which is mainly seen in aesthetic 3D printing.

The early prototype use of SL was also developed to reach commercial production with the Emirates airline using 3D printing to generate aircraft cabin components, applying the SLS technology.

Applications of 3D Printing Today

Children using a 3D pen

Moving on from just rapid prototyping, 3D printing technology has grown to manufacture greater goods and objects.

With 3D printing, you can produce well-designed and functional models, all the while using less material than traditional manufacturing methods.

In the medical industry, prosthetic limbs, surgical instruments, and even 3D printed copies of patient’s organs are being produced for doctors to practice on before the actual operation.

3d printed prosthetic limbs
3d printed prosthetic limbs

There is an entirely 3D-printed house up for sale in the United States. Using a 3D printing technology called Autonomous Robotic Construction System (ARCS), printing the house was faster and cheaper than the traditional way of construction.

Interestingly enough, even food is being possible to 3D print. Foods like chocolate, pizza, ravioli, etc. are fitting contestants for 3D printed edibles.

3D printed food

Even NASA is investing in the 3D printing market to make easier and sustainable space food for astronauts to save time and reduce waste.

3D printing is also becoming increasingly popular in the classroom environment. This technology allows students to creatively design and experience the excitement of crafting intricate objects they can hold instantly.

3d Printers are also used in construction. Check out Who Invented 3d Printed Houses / Construction Structures?

Limitations of 3D printing

At the early stage, around the 1980s and 1990s, 3D printing was being used for industrial products and had not yet reached the personal domain we have today through desktop 3D printers.

On the downside, some of the materials used for the printer were not sturdy enough and the 3D creation would often crumble and break down easily.

Moreover, the SLA printer would cost you around $300k (which would amount to $650k as of 2016, taking into account the inflation rate.) So, 3D printers were very expensive and not consumer-oriented.

Many legal issues need to be corrected when it comes to who is 3D printing and what can be 3D printed. Intellectual property rights are particularly hard to manage for private, non-commercial creators.

For example, the case of the Schwanitz 3D design of the Penrose triangle was especially criticized by many because despite not being his original design, Schwanitz managed to take down another creator’s free to share 3D design, inspired by his, based on dubious copyright claims.

3D printing has also been put under the spotlight for contributing to releasing harmful emissions. These nanoparticles released into the environment during the printing process can cause damage to the lungs.

The Future of 3D Printing

We have seen how far 3D printing has come from its initial purpose of rapid prototyping. Now, let us take a look at what might the future be for 3D printing.

  • Full-scale manufacturing and serial production; it will be easier to print 100 pieces for industrial testing for a company by way of additive manufacturing.
  • Digitization – no more warehouses full of boxes, only digital files stored on computers or the Cloud.
  • Simpler 3D design software for additive manufacturing that is easier to learn and operate.
  • More awareness and application of 3D printing education to generate more experts and welcome beginners to the industry.
  • Smarter 3D printers that have sensors and cameras within would allow for instant feedback and data of the manufactured product.
  • Metal and composite 3D printing will grow and develop further.
  • 3D printing will have a major influence on the manufacturing technology in the dental industry.
  • More possibilities for design, complex structures and geometries, and more than one printable material per project.
  • Greater durability of finished product and faster 3D printing.
  • Less harmful emissions being released in the environment; use of less toxic materials.

Also, check out our post “Can You 3D Print Electronic Devices?


3D printing was initially invented as a solution to the rapid prototyping problem. Early samples, small-scale models were the usual production at this point.

The first 3D printer was invented by Charles Hull with the use of his stereolithography method. The industry developed further with his company 3D Systems which paved the way for improved 3D printing processes.

Later, the 3D printing industry sped towards other methods such as SLS and FDM and went commercial. This allowed an innovative way of creating functional objects beyond prototypes such as 3D printed organs, houses, food, etc.

Like all great things, 3D printing also encounters various limitations. Such as brittle materials, costly printers, copyright difficulties, health hazards, etc.

Finally, it is evident that 3D printing has a bright future and is predicted to continue to evolve and mature over the near future and eventually overcome the limitations it has faced through the years of its development.


A writer and student who is excited to see the 3D printing world evolve and bring the information you crave for it.

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