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Manufacturing the future: How 3D printing went from pipe dream to your desktop

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Image: Pete Golibersuch/Knurling LLC

3D printers are all the rage with enthusiasts, but they didn’t just materialize out of nowhere like the sculptures they produce. Here’s the untold story of how the next big boom in technology came to be over 30 years.

It’s not a particularly well-produced video. There are no titles, no credits — no contextual information at all, really. The image is shaky, the sound full of static. The whole thing could have been shot on a phone.

A man stands alone in the desert in a black polo shirt and blue jeans, poorly framed in the video which crops off the top of his head. He adjusts a tethered earplug before turning his attention to the strangely shaped chunk of white plastic in his hands.

3D printing is here, and it’s about to change everything.

The man readies himself, shifting his weight and limbering up his arms. He raises the plastic mass eye level, its profile now registering clear similarities to a revolver. He squeezes off a shot with a bang. Orchestral music swells. He lowers the weapon and turns to the camera. Cut to stock footage of a bomber, then a sunset, and the words “DEFDIST PRESENTS LIBERATOR” overlaid across the screen.

There’s a lot to be desired here, so far as production quality is concerned, but its thesis is crystal clear: The 3D-printed gun had arrived – and with it came a remarkable transformation of … well, everything.

Four days after “Dawn of the Wiki Weapons” was uploaded, another video hit YouTube. Well-produced and unwaveringly emotional, it tells the story of Richard Van As, a South African master carpenter who built mechanical fingers to replace digits he’d lost in a work accident. Teaming with Washington-based special effects prop designer Ivan Owen and consumer 3D-printing powerhouse MakerBot, Van As launched Robohand, a non-profit aimed at outfitting young sufferers of Amniotic Band Syndrome with prosthetic appendages to help them lead fuller, richer lives.

A little over halfway through, the video’s true star speaks for the first time. “It’s fun to have,” young Liam says with a smile, manipulating the plastic prosthesis with ease. “I can do almost everything with it.”

As MakerBot happily reports, it’s the company’s low-cost, consumer-facing 3D printing that has made this dream possible. Prosthetics are expensive and quite impractical for children who will outgrow them almost as soon as they’ve been fitted for them. But what if the prosthesis grew with them? What 3D printing affords cash-strapped parents of children with disabilities is modular prostheses with parts that can be adjusted for size as the child grows — at a cost of about $5 for printed materials.

In the Netflix documentary Print the Legend – which began streaming online Friday — MakerBot Chief Strategy Office Jenny Lawton admits to accelerating release of the Robohand to offer a powerful counterpoint to the almost instantly viral Liberator video. “Once the gun video came out, we actually pushed that up a few days,” confesses Lawton. “That was our response to the gun thing.” To date, Robohand has racked up more than 500,000 views on YouTube — an impressive number to be sure, but a mere fraction of the gun’s 3.7 million.

Print the Legend PosterThe video did its job, however, and MakerBot founder Bre Pettis has long since pointed to the project as a watershed moment for desktop 3D printing when confronted with the standard questions about whether such devices can be used for anything beyond plastic trinkets.

The two videos differed wildly with regard to tone and production costs, but both speak to the same fundamental truth: The impact of 3D printing is only beginning to be understood by the world. Three months before their release, President Obama delivered his State of the Union to Congress. In a speech highlighting the role of technology in the future of American manufacturing, the leader of the free world name-checked the additive manufacturing happening in a Youngstown, Ohio plant. “A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything. There’s no reason this can’t happen in other towns.”

It’s difficult to imagine a more powerful endorsement of a technology than a State of the Union heralding the return of manufacturing to the depressed Rust Belt. But shortly after the premier of the Liberator video, New York Senator Chuck Schumer cited the availability of printable guns as part of his case for passing the Undetectable Firearms Modernization Act. A terrorist, someone who’s mentally ill, a spousal abuser, a felon can essentially open a gun factory in their garage,” Sen. Schumer said. “And the only thing they need is a computer and a little over a thousand dollars. No background check, and you don’t even need to leave your house to make hundreds of these guns.”

Like the videos, the politicians present two starkly different approaches to the same inevitability: 3D printing is here, and it’s about to change everything.

From cups and toy frogs to Ducatis

Should you ever run into Antoinette Hull at a tech conference or on the street, ask to see her Tiffany jewelry box.

It’s a small black velvet affair, a hinged ring box designed to house small glimmers of gold and diamond. If she allows you to take a look, you’ll find something far less assuming, but to her, at least, far more precious. It’s a small, circular piece of shiny plastic. Calling it a “cup” would almost be a touch to generous. It’s more a palm-sized exercise in geometric patterns.

[That first 3D printer] looked post-apocalyptic, like some of the equipment they used in that movie Waterworld.

Like all great tales of scientific and technological breakthroughs, its storytellers relay the events with a cinematic zeal. Antionette Hull receives an excited late-night call from her husband, claiming he’s finally done it. After months of Island of Dr. Moreau-style mutant experiments, she’s exhausted by the whole pursuit, but she puts on her pajamas and joins him anyway.

This time, of course, he’s right. After months of misshapen strands of pasta-like plastic, Chuck Hull had his cup. What he’d created that night in March 1983 was a modest object by almost any measure, but it was one that marked a concept decades ahead of its time, a sci-fi notion birthed into this world on a machine that — as the inventor would later tell The New York Times — “was so kludged together that it looked post-apocalyptic, like some of the equipment they used in that movie Waterworld.”

The strange little cup is the world’s first successfully 3D-printed object, a real-world manifestation of the concept he would deem “stereolithography,” based on the notion of adding an extra dimension to lithography, an 18th-century printing technology. A few years prior, Hull had left a job at DuPont to become the Vice President of Engineering at UVP — a Southern California company specializing in the production of ultraviolet light products.

Soon, he began dedicating nights and weekends to his passion project, a concept designed to take some of the pain out of prototyping objects for mass manufacture. “The design of plastic parts took months before stereolithography,” Hull explains, in his customarily straightforward manner.

“After generating a concept, blueprints needed to be made and sent to a mold maker, who then handed that off to the molder for a first article. Problems usually popped up somewhere along the way because of the number of steps involved. I was looking for a way to quickly go from concepts to prototype parts.”

Hull’s day job illuminated his after-hours passion, with ultraviolet light playing a key role in his invention. The stereolithography patent, granted two years later, outlines a process in which a beam of ultraviolet light is exposed to a vat of liquid resin, curing it layer by layer and transforming it into the solid object detailed by a software program. The process outlined in patent US 4575330 A is remarkably similar — and in some cases exactly the same — as those employed by many modern 3D printers.

Hull launched a company — 3D Systems — to help commercialize his innovation. In 1989, it launched the SLA 1, a machine dedicated to the concept of rapid prototyping — the speedy fabrication of physical objects based on computer aided design. Over the next couple of decades, the stuff of science fiction became a staple of the manufacturing process for a number of top global corporations. As Hull envisioned, rapid prototyping began to replace more traditional methods, particularly within the automotive industry.

“He was absolutely obsessed with helping Detroit regain some competitive advantage,” explains current 3D Systems CEO Avi Reichental. “That was during a period when Detroit lost the competitiveness to cheaper, and actually higher quality, Japanese imports. Chuck understood that one way for Detroit to reassert itself is they could compress the whole of these lines and manufacturing and he could help. And sure enough, as it turned out, automotive was among the very first in the early adopters, together with aerospace and some government agencies.”

While 3D Systems was introducing the world to stereolithography, Minnesota inventor S. Scott Crump was having a garage moment of his own, attempting to create a toy frog for his daughter. Like the precious plastic cup now residing in a Tiffany box, Crump sought to build the toy layer by layer, filling a hot glue gun full of polyethylene and candle wax. Like most great technological breakthroughs, early experiments proved a mess.

Somewhere in the midst of destroying kitchen equipment, Crump had developed the beginnings of fused-deposition modeling. Filed the same year the SLA 1 hit the market, Crump’s patent for an “Apparatus and method for creating three-dimensional objects” describes a process that will no doubt prove familiar for anyone with a passing interest in today’s 3D printing market. A moveable head travels along the X, Y and Z axes, depositing layer after layer of liquid material that hardens at a given temperature.

Three-dimensional objects may be produced by depositing repeated layers of solidifying material until the shape is formed. Any material, such as self-hardening waxes, thermoplastic resins, molten metals, two-part epoxies, foaming plastics, and glass, which adheres to the previous layer with an adequate bond upon solidification, may be utilized.

Three years later, Crump’s young company Stratasys launched its first rapid-protoyping product, the 3D Modeler, which capitalized on his innovation and marked the rise of the one of the biggest players in the 3D printing space. These days the multi-billion dollar corporation counts NASA, BMW and Ducati amongst the companies using its 3D printers.

Despite the visibility of these high-profile clients, industrial 3D printing companies like Stratasys, 3D Systems, Objet and Z Corporation (the latter two eventually acquired by the former two, incidentally), largely remained under the public’s radar in their early years. The perceived banality of manufacturing apparently overshadowed the giddy “Star Trek in real life” story that would come to define more contemporary coverage.

There are notable exceptions to this, of course, namely a 1989 Good Morning America “Science Segment” featuring Chuck Hull. In it, a massively feathered Joan Lunden introduces the technology by telling her morning viewers that “it seems like magic, but it’s called ‘stereolithography.’ You dream up an idea, you plot it out on your computer and then, presto, out comes an exact model.” Hair styles aside, the piece, could just have easily aired last week. “Stereolithography turns human ideas into something tangible, and its future applications are limited only by the human imagination.”

Enter the makers

In those early interviews, Hull anticipated a 25- to 30-year development period before the technology found more mainstream applications. Thirty-one years later, that prediction is finally coming fruition. Even still, Hull expresses surprise over the level of excitement has built up in recent years around the technology he played a principal role in developing. “I was surprised how rapidly this happened, and excited to see this technology become more and more relevant in people’s minds,” Hull explains. “The catalyst for attracting public attention was when the maker and hobby printers became popular.”

While the first wave of 3D printers aligned with the romantic notion of American entrepreneurs toiling away in garages, just like Apple and HP, the roots of nearly all modern desktop 3D printers can, surprisingly, be traced directly back to an open-sourced project launched at a British university. The project’s mission was simultaneously simple and seemingly impossible: develop a machine that can replicate itself.

The catalyst for attracting public attention was when the maker and hobby printers became popular.

“When Bath University got a big grant at the turn of the century, I was allowed to spend about quarter of a million of it, and I bought two rapid-prototyping machines,” explains Dr. Adrian Bowyer, the retired university professor who founded the RepRap — short for replicating rapid prototyper — project in 2004. “It was immediately obvious to me that for the first time, humanity had a manufacturing technology that was so sophisticated that it stood a chance of self-replication. It didn’t occur to me that I might play a role in that though. I just put the idea online in the (rather lazy) hope that someone else might actually do it. All my academic colleagues then came to me and persuaded me to do it.”

RepRap went online in 2005, with an open-source mission that would allow anyone to use it for free. “It seemed to me that self-replicating technology is far too powerful to place in the hands of any restricted group, whether that group is a commercial company, a collective, or a government,” Bowyer explains. “The only way to stop that happening is to give it to everyone free.”

The project saw its first true hints of success the following year, when an early prototype successfully printed its first replaceable part. Two years later, the RepRap 1.0 Darwin successfully printed half of its own rapidly prototyped components. The project has seen a number of “official” iterations over the years, and Dr. Bowyer puts a rough estimate of the RepRap machines in the wild at around 100,000. As impressive as that number may be, RepRap’s true legacy is arguably the impact it had outside the hobbyist community.

The heart of the RepRap hardware is fused filament fabrication — FFF — a process similar to Crump’s fused deposition modeling that utilizes spools of plastic filament melted down through heated printed heads and extruded into thin layers. The affordable model demonstrated by the RepRap kits served as real-world proof that the technologies once relegated to car-sized industrial machines could be adapted into affordable, desktop-appropriate machines.

True to its open-source roots, the RepRap team had truly developed a technology for the people, a breakthrough that would inspire nearly every consumer-facing 3D printing company, as well as industry stalwarts like 3D Systems, who had long been considering a play at the space.

For the first time, humanity had a manufacturing technology that was so sophisticated that it stood a chance of self-replication.

“They basically demonstrated that you could take the extrusion process and simplify and deliver it as a kit,” explains Reichental. “I said to myself, ‘Wow, this changes everything,’ and that’s when I decided, on that day, that 3D systems had to embrace basic extrusion as the initial path toward a consumer system, because extrusion was probably the easiest technology to consumerize.”

Most notable amongst the RepRap faithful, however, were trio of makers — Zach Smith, Adam Mayer and Bre Pettis — who crossed paths at the small Brooklyn hackerspace, NYC Resistor. A founding member of NYC Resistor and the RepRap Research Foundation (a nonprofit devoted to spreading the self-replicating gospel), Smith served as the critical link between the open-source project and the beginnings of consumer 3D printing’s most iconic brand, which began in earnest in 2007.

“I met Zach at an NYCResistor microcontroller study group,” Pettis told Creative Commons. “After hearing about self-replicating robots, I spent the autumn in a corner of a film studio, where some friends of his were letting him work on RepRap robots when films weren’t being made. We spent a lot of time working on the McWire RepStrap, a 3D printer made out of plumbing pipes.”

By the following year, the trio finally had a machine capable of printing, so they naturally assigned it the task of generating shot glasses for a robot cocktail festival in Austria, which they filled with vodka and Fisherman’s Friend throat lozenges, as Pettis recalls. “Robots and alcohol are a fantastic combination.”

That same year saw the launch of Thingiverse, an online repository for 3D design files carrying the slogan, “Let’s create a better universe, together!” Or, as Wired’s then Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson famously said in a column, “atoms are the new bits.” To this day, Thingiverse remains the go-to location for free 3D-printable files.

PTL Bre Pettis of Makerbot Cuts Ribbon to New Factory

Bre Pettis of Makerbot Cuts Ribbon to New Factory (Image: Print the Legend)

In 2009, MakerBot released its first product. While the team had moved on from pipes, the commercial 3D printer still possessed the sort of cobbled-together charm one would expect from a first-generation product birthed during late-night coffee and pizza benders at a converted Brooklyn brewery. Funded in part by Bowyer and constructed of lasercut plywood, the $750 unassembled CNC Cupcake took its name from its limited build volume, which wasn’t suitable for anything larger than a frosted pastry.

“When they got the prototype to work, they got on a plane and flew to SXSW and launched MakerBot,” a company spokesperson explains. “After SXSW, MakerBot had approximately 20 MakerBot Cupcake 3D Printer kits prepared to sell. They thought it would take a few months to sell out and then they would make more. It took a few days to sell out. It was at that point that they knew they had something. The founders quit their jobs and devoted themselves to creating MakerBot.”

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