Sep 18, 2018

The Evolution of 3D Printing

SLA-1 3D Printer

The world’s first 3D Printer designed by Charles Hall in 1984 on display at the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Image credit:

Since the invention of stereolithography by Charles Hull in 1984, 3D printing has gone through more than three decades of continued research and development. The hobbyist novelty printers of yesteryear producing decorative doodads with melted plastics have morphed into business tools that can 3D print anything from rocket engines to functional human organs, as needed, on demand, and at ever-plummeting costs.

It’s somewhat reminiscent of the telephone’s evolution, as it moved from a rotary dial design with shared “party” telephone lines to digital, portable and eventually cellular phones. But just as cellular was simply the beginning for today’s ubiquitous smart phones, single-material 3D printers creating simple devices certainly won’t be the end of the line for 3D printers.

Rather, these evolutionary steps in 3D printing have helped show what’s been missing in the world of additive manufacturing: the ability to use multiple materials to build electrically functional parts such as PCBs, sensors, and antennas – in just a few hours.

The timeline below illustrates the evolution that is bringing additive manufacturing technology from hobbyist tool to “factory-in-a-box.”

1980s: Discoveries help scientists develop key 3D printing technologies 

1981: Two independent entities, Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute in Japan and a partnership of General Electric Company and CILAS in France, independently researched ways to 3D print objects.

1984: American engineer Charles Hull (who later co-founded 3D Systems) invented and patented stereolithography, a printing process that enabled a 3D object to be created from digital data using ultraviolet lights and a new “STL” file format he developed.  With this technology, designers could prototype and test designs without having to make an upfront investment in manufacturing.


Selective Laser Sintering schematic. Image credit: Materialgeeza, Wikimedia Commons

1986: Carl Deckard filed a patent for Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), which used powder grains to form 3D printed products. SLS technology made it possible to produce complex parts, layer by layer, in a fraction of the time required for traditional methods.

1989: Scott Crump developed Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), using heat to layer 3D models. Crump also established Stratasys, a 3D printing company.

1990s: Companies commercialize 3D printers,introduce new processes

1994: Solidscape launched ModelMaker, the first 3D wax printer.

1997: AeroMat launched the first 3D metal printer using Laser Additive Manufacturing (LAM).

1999: Objet Geometries (today Stratasys) launched the first 3D printer that can print both hard and soft materials to simulate different material properties in one object.

1999: Scientists at the Wake Forrest Institute for Regenerative Medicine printed synthetic scaffolds of a human bladder and then coated them with the cells of human patients.

2000s: 3D printing becomes mainstream

3D printing kept growing with new processes and materials, such as micro casting and sprayed materials, allowing additive manufacturing to be used for metals in multiple ways. Concurrently, in the medical field, scientists from different institutions and startups fabricated a functional miniature kidney, built a prosthetic leg and bio printed the first blood vessels using only human cells. In the manufacturing field, companies began leveraging 3D printing in a variety of ways to solve inventory shortages and impact how people work.

Fab@Home Model 1 (2006)

Fab@Home Model 1. Image credit: Hodlipson, Wikimedia Commons

2005: The beginning of the Maker Revolution, where people began creating new products on their own, using open-source hardware.  The Fab@Home project was one of the first open-source DIY printing projects.

2006: The first SLS machine became commercially viable, opening the door to on-demand manufacturing of industrial parts.

2007: Objet introduced the Connex series of 3D printers that allowed users to combine two different materials in a single print job in a variety of combinations that produce 14 different levels of hardness, texture, and shading in one object.

2008: RapRap Project, an open-source initiative, released Darwin, the first open-sourced 3D printer hardware. This attracted a huge 3D-printing maker community worldwide.  At the time, Shapeways started its online 3D printing service, a 3D-printing marketplace where designers could get feedback from consumers and then fabricate their products. MakerBot was also created in this year and provided open-source DIY kits for people to build their own 3D printers and products.

Present Day: 3D Printed Electronics Leading the Way for Design and Manufacturing

dragonfly pro 3d printer_hikey

Nano Dimension’s DragonFly Pro 3D Printer for electronics.

The new game-changing additive manufacturing technology of 3D printed electronics letsdesigners and manufacturers use multiple materials to build electrically functional parts, including PCBs, sensors, and antennas — in just a few hours.

2017: Nano Dimension’s DragonFly Pro is the first entry into this new category of advanced additive manufacturing for electronics. The DragonFLy Pro is an extremely precise inkjet deposition system that allows for simultaneous 3D printing of silver nanoparticle ink (metal) and insulating ink (dielectric polymer). This process sets new standards for accuracy, complexity and speed in the fields of both 3D printed electronics and professional electronics development.

With additive manufacturing for printed electronics, it is possible to produce prototypes and custom parts in a fraction of the time required by traditional subtractive manufacturing. Upon completion of a 3D print job, there is also no need for post-processing. Product development teams can now design and build fully functional, free-form electronics that were unimaginable previously, including complex designs for many new applications and complete devices that incorporate embedded electronics.

This convergence of electronics and additive manufacturing offers staggering potential for the electronics industry – particularly around rapid prototyping of elements such as antennas, sensors, professional printed circuit boards (PCBs), and MIDs (Molded Interconnect Devices).

collection of prints

Range of multi-layer PCBs and non-planar electronics printed with the DragonFly Pro 3D Printer.

The DragonFly Pro 3D Printer’s flexibility gives designers more freedom for creativity and experimentation with their designs than they would have through traditional methods. Designers can also choose to test either full circuits or just individual sections to see if they are working properly before finalizing their designs. To top it off, these are all done in house or through service bureaus that use the DragonFly Pro 3D Printer.

Last but not least, prototyping with the DragonFly Pro means companies can keep activities in house rather than sending their designs overseas for weeks or months at a time. This both protects sensitive intellectual property and helps to bring products to market quicker.

Nano Dimension’s new brand of 3D printing empowers progress and encourages innovation, lessens development risks, enables faster times-to-market and ultimately, produces better electronic products. It puts us all on the road to the true “factory in a box.”

Learn more about Nano Dimension’s DragonFly IV 3D printer for electronics:

Learn About The DragonFly IV

Stay Updated

Be informed of the future of additive manufacturing &
3D printed electronics