To determine where three-dimensional printing began, one first has to determine if the true beginnings of it lies with type printing, paper and books, or manufacturing. In a way, it has two beginnings. Since the invention of the computer was centuries behind the innovation of either manufacturing or type printing, computer printing is an interesting subject to address. The convenience of personal printing in the location of choice rather than the necessity of traveling to a printing house can be easily compared to the ease of creating a model immediately rather than requiring the schematics to be sent off and await its slow delivery. Type printing was all that computer printers were originally made for (computers themselves were a crazy enough invention, after all).
To really understand what 3D printing is requires a definition of what process it undertakes. Different from manufacturing and machinery, 3D printing applies layer after layer, an additive process, to slowly build a product, while machining creates product while removing excess material, a subtractive process. (A simple illustration is to compare an artist chipping away at a block of stone to make a sculpture, a subtractive process, to an artist painting a landscape, an additive process.) To put it in different terms, manufacturing breaks down materials to work them down to the finished product, while 3D printing seemingly creates something from nothing, building the product a layer at a time from a reservoir of raw materials.
In essence, it is not that far removed from the concept of the Star Trek replicator, a device which would create whatever its user desired in a matter of seconds and cause it to just appear (Tea, Earl Grey, hot). While it is amazing that we seem to gather so much of our technology from science fiction movies, it really isn’t such a great leap forward into the future (but I’m still waiting on my lightsaber). For years factories have been using machines programmed by computers to create products doing a simple additive or subtractive process, it would make sense that 3D printing would be the next progression. The first model 3D printed in 1981 brought about a new change in printing technology offering many new solutions to the creation process.
At first, 3D printing was utilized only by large corporations, universities, the medical profession, and of course, the military (who doesn’t want to imagine 3D-printed drones everywhere?). Quickly revolutionizing the way these entities developed new products, it even made their great cost well worth the investment, thanks to the incredible ease of use and convenience. These first 3D printers were large and slow (like the first computers), but even still it was better to be able to handle the process in-house rather than out-sourcing it.
Today, 3D printers, like computers, have become much smaller, faster, and easier to use. But how easy is 3D printing? The programs to create a brand new device from scratch are a bit complex (as one might imagine), but considering that 3D printing may become open source, it would mean that you could find a schematic for the item you were looking for with a simple search, download it, and immediately begin printing. Think about this possibility: Need a spoon or fork for the dinner table at home? Click and print. It sounds incredible, but as 3D printers become more inexpensive, this isn’t such a futuristic idea anymore either.
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