Three-dimensional printing traces its roots back to the mid 1980s, with Chuck Hull's invention of stereolithography, a process that uses powerful imaging software and a computer laser to solidify polymer layers. These layers form the depth, length, and width of a three-dimensional object.
This breakthrough invention led Hull to found 3D Systems, a company that has continued to pioneer 3D printing technology.
Early 3D printing hardware
The evolution of 3D hardware followed a similar path to that of early computers, since the two technologies are closely intertwined. The first 3D printer was produced by 3D Systems in 1992.
This mammoth contraption was close to the size of a refrigerator, and it allowed people to print out product prototypes and test objects. The hardware continued to progress through the 90s, after 3D Systems launched the SLA 7000 in 1990. This model took up much less space than its predecessors, and it was significantly faster than previous 3D printer models.
Hindrances for small businesses
Countless tech companies have since jumped on the 3D printing bandwagon, but access has been limited over the last two decades. Early 3D printing models were extraordinarily expensive, which made this technology inaccessible to most small and medium-sized businesses.
The equipment required large spaces, specialized knowledge, and expensive repair costs. Also, 3D printers required very specific input from CAD software, which had its own computer requirements.
For many years, this type of imaging power was not made available on the consumer market. When it finally broke through to the public, the hardware and software specs remained practically inaccessible due to high price points.
The technology jump
3D printing hardware and software innovations have now made it possible for virtually everyone to have access. There are DIY kits for hobbyists to create their own 3D printers. Children can even use advanced LEGO robotics builds to craft scaled-down versions of 3D printers.
Consumer interest in these modeling capabilities has cause the 3D printing sector to explode with new options. Companies can invest in their own printing hardware with a low buy-in price point, or they can send designs to professional third-party services to print for them.
Free and inexpensive software such as Google Sketch, OpenSCAD, Tinkercad, and a host of other titles allow consumers and businesses to create three-dimensional modeling plans on their computers. The processing and space requirements for these projects are now available at affordable price points with mid-range consumer computers.
So what can your business use 3D printing for? What are the practical business applications for this technology? Well, your product development departments can create prototypes of upcoming retail items. This can help you understand visual and tactile strengths and opportunities during the planning processes.
Many printed tools are even functional: companies have been known to print working lock mechanisms, kitchen tools, and assistive devices out of plastic. These models can help your testing groups get a firm idea of how a product can help them in life.
Printed models can help your engineering teams work through conceptual challenges. Having a physical model can help you test the structural integrity of a product. These models could play a major role in consumer safety and risk reduction.
3D printing can also assist businesses in the stylization of their products. For example, jewelry makers often rely on wax prototypes of custom rings, which allow customers to see a finished product before they invest thousands of dollars into the crafting of precious metals and gemstones.
Your business can join the 3D printing revolution too. Speak with your project managers, marketing leaders, and development departments. The reduced costs of 3D printing hardware and software make prototyping and modeling very accessible to a wide range of businesses.