The Evolution of 3D Printing

The wonderful technology of 3D printing has revolutionised the way businesses work globally. Although this concept sounds modern, or even futuristic, 3D Printing started over 160 years ago! Let’s take a step back in time and see how this all started.

1859: François Willème Invents The Photo Sculpture

That’s right! Over 160 years ago the French painter, sculptor and photographer started the revolution of 3D printing by creating photo sculptures of living people.

How does a photo sculpture work?

To create a photo sculpture, François had to do the following:

  1. Arrange the subject on a circular platform
  2. Surround the subject with 24 cameras, one every 15 degrees
  3. Photograph the silhouette simultaneously with each camera
  4. Project each image onto a screen
  5. Translate each image into the movements, by using a pantograph attached to a cutter
  6. Traced each profile with one end of the pantograph, while the other end cut a sheet of wood in the exact same movement
  7. Assemble the layers of wood to create the photo sculpture

The end result would look a little bit rough, so François would smooth and paint the sculpture to make it look more traditional.

The image below is one of François’s unfinished sculptures, which demonstrates how long it would have taken to create one.

François Willème (c.1865) Unfinished photo sculpture: portrait head of a woman. Available at: [accessed 18th March 2020].

1892: Blanther Invents 3D Topographical Maps

In the late 19th Century, J E Blanther introduced a layered method for making molds on topographical relief maps.

United States Patent and Trademark Office. Available at: [accessed 18th March 2020].

The contour relief maps were created using wax sheets, which were cut out and then smoothed. A printed paper map would then press the sheets together showing the elevations and depressions (which represented the valleys and hills).

This was one of the earliest recorded events in 3D manufacturing, which would continue to improve and develop for the next 80 years.

1972 – 1981: The Introduction of Photopolymers

The next biggest evolution in 3D printing was the invention of photopolymers. First introduced by Mastubara of Mitsubishi motors, these photo-hardened materials were used to create layered parts to form casting molds.

This was then further developed in 1981 when Hideo Kodama (Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute) published the first account of a working photopolymer rapid prototyping system.

1984: Charles Hull invents Stereolithography (or does he?)

The technology of 3D printing is accelerating fast in the 20th Century, as Stereolithography (SLA) is introduced into the manufacturing world. This state of the art technology allows you to take a 3D model and etch it into a special liquid with a laser.

Image via Yayue Pan, Haiyang He, Jie Xu & Alan Feinerman. Available at: [accessed 18th March 2020].

Charles Hull (founder of 3D systems) is known as the “inventor” of Stereolithography, however french engineer and inventor Alain Le Mehaute filed a patent for the invention 3 weeks before Charles. Alain’s patent is then abandoned therefore missing out on being called the inventor by history.

“I’m not bitter. I am proud of the innovative work we undertook and our efforts to promote technological innovation through the impetus of business and economic growth. Unfortunately, in contrast, I am sad for our country because this is not the only example of French innovation that has been better harnessed by those overseas” – Alain Le Mehaute

1990’s: 3D Printing on a Different level

When it comes to the ’90s, 3D printing and technology, in general, are making huge waves in the industry:

1991: The first FDM (fused deposition modeling) machine is produced

1992: The first SLS (selective laser sintering) machine is produced

1992: The first SLA 3D Printer machine is produced

1994: Model Maker’s wax printer is released

1997: Aeromet invents laser additive manufacturing

The biggest technological advancement happened in 1999 when scientists managed to successfully grow organs from patient’s cells and use a 3D printed scaffold to support them.

Image source:

21st Century: 3D Printing Continues to Thrive

The fast progression of 3D printing has no signs of slowing down, as more groundbreaking technology and inventions are introduced:

2000: The first 3D Inkjet Printer & 3D Multicolour Printers are produced

2001: The first desktop 3D printer is produced

2002: The first 3D printed miniature kidney is manufactured

2008: The first 3D printer to be able to produce many of its own parts is produced

2008: The first 3D prosthetic leg is produced

2009: The first 3D printed blood vessel is produced

2011: The first 3D printed car is produced

The KOR Ecologic Urbee 3-wheeled vehicle with 3D printed body panels. Available at: [accessed 18th March 2020].

2012: The first 3D printed jaw is produced

2016: The first 3D printed vein-tissue is produced

2018: MIT discovers a way to 3D print glass

3D Printing in the future?

With technology continuing to rapidly advance, 3D printing has a vital role to play in the future. From 3D printing houses to even printing food, the possibilities are endless! It’s clear to see that 3D printing also has a vital role in many industries such as medical, manufacturing, crafts and even in your own home.

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