3D printing history goes back further than you might realise, with its origins in the 19th century and attempts to make 3-dimensional sculptures from cameras and ideas about producing topographical maps.
Rapid prototyping is a group of techniques used to quickly fabricate a scale model of a physical part or assembly using three-dimensional computer aided design (CAD) data. Construction of the part or assembly is usually done using 3D printing or "additive layer manufacturing" technology.
In the 1970s, Joseph Henry Condon and others at Bell Labs developed the Unix Circuit Design System (UCDS), automating the laborious and error-prone task of manually converting drawings to fabricate circuit boards for the purposes of research and development.
The technologies referred to as Solid Freeform Fabrication are what we recognize today as rapid prototyping, 3D printing or additive manufacturing: Swainson (1977), Schwerzel (1984) worked on polymerization of a photosensitive polymer at the intersection of two computer controlled laser beams. Ciraud (1972) considered magnetostatic or electrostatic deposition with electron beam, laser or plasma for sintered surface cladding. These were all proposed but it is unknown if working machines were built.
Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute was the first to publish an account of a solid model fabricated using a photopolymer rapid prototyping system (1981). Even at that early date the technology was seen as having a place in manufacturing practice. A low resolution, low strength output had value in design verification, mould making, production jigs and other areas. Outputs have steadily advanced toward higher specification uses.
Charles Hull (founder of 3D systems) invented stereolithography (SLA) – which was patented in 1987. The technology allows you to take a 3D model and use a laser to etch it into a special liquid (photopolymer).
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