When asked "How Old is 3D Printing?" many people think of 3D Printing as a brand new technology, and when asked to put a number on its age they will say "3 years old, maybe 5". That answer has got a lot to do with two things:

  1. The Worldwide Recession
  2. Accessibility

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Ask the same question of FaceBook: i.e. How old is FaceBook?

Unsurprisingly the answer will be similar. “About 5 years old.”  Why is this?  Well that is down to adoption and accessibility. Early users of FaceBook needed two things:

  1. Access or ownership of a Personal Computer
  2. Connection to the Internet.

As PC’s got smaller, cheaper and Laptops became available, and as internet connection became more reliable, then more and more users adopted the use of FaceBook. The more popular something is, the more people talk about it.  Introduce new technology like Smartphones and adoption skyrockets, but new users thinks it’s newer.

FaceBook was actually incorporated and the website made live in February 2004, so today its eleven years old.

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Again, ask the identical question of WiFi and again, the answer will be “about 5 years old”, That response is again due to accessibility. Although the technology was introduced way back in 1997, improvements to the bandwidth made it more reliable and the technology became more accessible to more people, so more people adopted it. So WiFi is now about 17 years old.

So what about 3D Printing? Why do people think that this technology is only 5 years old?

It is acknowledged that the first working 3D printer was created in 1984 by Charles W. Hull of 3D Systems Corp. So 3D printing is older than FaceBook and older than WiFi and is actually about 30 years old.

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Chuck Hull went on to publish a number of patents on the whole concept of 3D printing. Many of these inventions and patented processes are used in today’s rapid prototyping or additive manufacturing processes.

The size of 3D Printers in the infancy of the industry was …well industrial and, 3D printing in the early days was very expensive and not feasible for the general market. Not SME or Education, and certainly not the home user.

However, the early adopters like Aerospace and Automotive have embedded these processes into their manufacturing and Airbus will confirm that approx. 1,000 parts in flying airframes are manufactured on Stratasys 3D Printers today.

As we moved into the 21st century, costs dropped dramatically, allowing 3D printers to become smaller and be more accessible to smaller businesses and to education.  Some enthusiasts in the RepRap movement built their own machines, bizarrely promulgating the urban myth that you needed to be a scientist or at least a geek to use a 3D Printer.

Again some early adopters bought very expensive machines which were very expensive to operate, and then parked them. I have spoken to many schools that were there first to get a 3D Printer, but they no longer operate their 3D Printer as energy cost and the cost of consumables is preventative.

None of this is true of today’s generation of Desktop 3D Printers.

Then again, just as 3D Printers were becoming smaller and cheaper, the World Wide Recession hit. Industry insiders comment that this financial impediment did not stop those organizations already using the 3D print technology from continuing to do so. However, it did prevent new investors taking the leap into adoption of the technology or speculating how they could utilize 3D printing in their industry.

So why has 3D Printing just suddenly entered the Psyche?  Well, there has been a lot of 3D media interest in 3D Printing of late and combined with the recession fading into history and reducing 3D printing costs and scale. So 3D printing is now possible by any school, and any business, of any size.

Media guru’s might say there is no such thing as bad press, but I will comment that focusing on negatives like the ability to produce firearms might raise awareness, but it also raises fear.

If the Royal Navy, and the ISS have adopted 3D Printing, then of course there will be media exposure, and that exposure also serves to underline the unique nature of this manufacturing process, and how and where it can be used.: i.e. Anywhere and for Anything.

So if the technology is this old, why are schools quite slow on the uptake?

Well that depends where in the world you happen to be. The Chinese government have committed to installing 400,000 3D printers in elementary schools by the end of 2016. The Archdiocese of Baltimore on a smaller scale has bought a 3D printer for all of its 48 catholic schools across the diocese. The rational is simple. If the technology is this old, then many of the companies who our children will be hoping to be employed by are already using it and many more will now adopt it. These two institutions on different scales have recognized the need to equip their students with the necessary skills to get those jobs and make the best use of the technology that is here today. 3D Printing does not exist in a futuristic Tomorrows World of if’s but’s and maybes, it is here now. It’s an old technology, and one whose accessibility is open to everyone.

So what’s the last obstacle to 3D Printing for all? The ability to design a model for 3D printing on a CAD system perhaps?

MakerBot who are owned by Strataysys understand all of this and have thus created an Ecosystem around their 3D Printers to enable more people to have more access to 3D Printing. With file repositories or libraries like ThingiVerse and with Apps for SmartPhones and Tablets like PrintShop which has functionality like ShapeMaker a 3D Printer user no longer has to even have CAD skills or design capability. Literally, anyone can create a design and 3D print it.

makerbot unleash your creativityThe world is now aware of 3D Printing, and now questions like “How does 3D Printing work?” should be replaced by “What can I do with 3D Printing today?” and the answer to that last question is “just about anything”.

See MakerBot 3D Printers at Shropshire 3D Print