Additive Manufacturing
Marches On


3D printed toy soldiers at London Comic Con 2012. Image: Cory Doctorow

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Additive manufacturing affects so much of our world. From aerospace engineering, where it took out the prohibitive cost of dyes and molds for replacement parts, to the jewelry on your wrist, shaped to the pattern in gold or silver desired. But what does the timeline of the additive manufacturing revolution look like?

There are three pillars that represent the work of the 1980s, says Denis Cormier, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY. Though open to debate, Chuck Hull’s 1983 patent for stereolithography is considered by many to have started it all, ushering in an era. Second is the selective laser sintering process that the University of Texas, Austin developed. The final pillar is the fused deposition modeling process. “It was the building blocks of everything that came,” he says.

The Original Process

After these initial breakthroughs, Cormier says, much of the evolution actually sat dormant until Ely Sachs at MIT in the early 1990s. “This was the original 3D printing process, the classic spreading of a layer of plaster light powder and ink-jetting them on to a powder bed,” he says.

Prof. Denis Cormier (left) with his student in the lab of RIT’s Kate Gleason College of Engineering. Image:

Then application of the technology went light years ahead to what we truly know today as additive manufacturing, says Cormier. “This centered around a difference in intent. Instead of a part that is going to be making a prototype to look at, now they were manufacturing a usable part that will go into a product.”

A key aspect of that was the introduction of processes that could make metal parts. “A specific example was Swedish company Arcam, (Molndal, Sweden), launched in 2002 with the electron beam melting process to work directly with metal powders,” he says. “Companies like Medical Modeling in Colorado made titanium custom for bone implants using the process. Soldiers coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan who needed plates for a jaw could get it. This was custom, not mass produced,” he adds.

Decades Older Than You Think

Cormier laughs that many people believe the industry is only a few years old. That’s because it was only a few years ago that it become realistic to imagine it would enter the mainstream, largely through patent expiration. In 2009, dozens of companies were free to finally begin selling desktop 3D printers, such as MakerBot. “To give you an idea, I bought one of Stratysys’ least expensive models in 2009, and I paid $42,000. Now MakerBot makes something not so far off in quality that costs a little over $2,000. You now can see printers in many high schools. An average person has a chance to take their idea and make it come alive that much more.”

So what is the next leap on the timeline as we look to the future? It’s not so much reinventing as it is adjusting for even greater consumption, Cormier says. “The process needs to get faster, the cost of the hardware and the consumable materials needs to still go down,” he says. “In the end, the hobby-style 3D printers will continue to send prices downward, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

Participate in ASME's Advanced Design & Manufacturing Impact Forum, focusing on the intersection of advanced design and manufacturing in industrial and consumer applications.

The process needs to get faster, the cost of the hardware and the consumable materials needs to still go down.

Prof. Denis Cormier,
Rochester Institute of Technology


February 2014

by Eric Butterman,