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With the recent boom in the consumer 3D printing market, it is perhaps easy to forget that early attempts at the technology were made as far back as the 1980s. Indeed, the patent application for the material extrusion technology used in most consumer machines today, namely Fused Deposition Modelling (granted as US 5,121,329), was filed in this period. 3D printing may have started off as a fanciful idea, but it would quickly turn into an effective option for small-scale manufacturing.
A breakthrough was made in 1999 when scientists succeeded in printing a human bladder. By 2008, advances in materials science and printing techniques were sufficient to allow the first 3D-printed prosthetic limb to be made. 3D printing now has widespread applications in medicine, ranging from hearing aids to stents to titanium implants.
The aerospace industry was another early adopter of 3D printing. Manufacturers have been able to replace multiple parts in a large assembly with a single 3D-printed part, thereby reducing weight and fuel consumption. The latest serial-production jet engines, for example, can contain hundreds of 3D-printed parts.
Cutting-edge manufacturing aside, since the mid-2000s, low-cost 3D printing has become increasingly prevalent and has sustained a growing hobbyist community. It has also enabled rapid prototyping, dramatically cutting tooling costs and increasing speed for product development.
Decades of rapid development has resulted in a dizzying array of technologies. In very broad terms, the most common technologies can be grouped into five main categories below.
The undeniable importance of 3D printing in medicine and industry has led to an unprecedented amount of innovation in the field, and a growing number of patent applications. According to official statistics, close to 16,800 3D printing-related patent applications were filed at the EPO between 2010 to 2018, 47% of which originated in Europe, followed by 35% from the US. In terms of sectors, the health sector accounted for nearly a quarter of these applications, followed by energy and transportation.
While it may seem far-fetched to think that everyone will someday manufacture their own gadgets using their 3D printers at home, it does not seem unreasonable to expect that many aspects of our daily lives will soon benefit from 3D printing in one way or another.
Article by: Clive So | 14 January 2021