A 3-D printer (also called a solid-object printer)
In general, 3D printers have five common parts: input material, print head, build plate, axes, and 3D design file (see Figure 1).
- Input material — 3D-printed parts begin as input material. This material can be in the form of solid filament, pellets, liquid, or powder.
- Print head — The input material is deposited at the tip of the print head. This process can occur through a variety of methods, including pushing filament or pellets through a metal extruder, using a laser to melt powder, or using a light to solidify liquid.
- Build plate — The build plate is the base (flat surface) upon which the part is constructed. At the beginning of the 3D printing process, the print head is nearly touching the build plate. As more layers are added to the part, the distance between the print head and the build plate increases.
- Axes — The axes move the print head relative to the build plate. This enables the 3D printer to create a particular pattern for each new layer of material. The final part is made up of the patterns in each layer, stacked on top of each other.
- 3D design file — The 3D printing process is governed by a digital 3D design file. This file provides instructions to the 3D printer that describe how to move the axes, which in turn move the position of the print head relative to the build plate. The file controls exactly what patterns are produced in each layer; this determines which kind of part is produced by the 3D printer.
The development and growth of 3D printing can be described in three major periods. The period spanning 1980 to 2010 marks the creation of the technology, its industrial use, and the beginning of the consumer 3D printing movement. Between 2010 and 2015, the 3D printing market continued to expand, despite signs of weakening in 2014. Since 2015, prices for consumer 3D printers have fallen, while sales of consumer and industrial 3D printers have continued to rise as the technology has matured.
Early 3D printing (1980-2010)
The first major patents for 3D printing methods were filed in the 1980s, creating a nascent 3D printing market for industrial clients. In the 1990s, 3D printers using plastic, metal, paper, ceramic, and wax became available at prices from thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. In the early 2000s, the 3D printer market expanded into specialized industries, including medicine, dentistry, and jewelry. At the same time, new plastic printing materials were developed.
The first decade of the 21st century marked the expiration of several key 1980s 3D printing patents. In the same period, consumers gained access to improved web connectivity and user-friendly computer-aided design (CAD) tools. These factors contributed to the birth of the consumer 3D printing movement. Key developments in this movement included the formation of the open-source 3D printer community; the 2007 release of the first website for print-on-demand custom 3D prints (Shapeways); and the 2008 creation of the popular 3D printing file-sharing website Thingiverse. In 2009, MakerBot, one of the first consumer 3D printing companies, released a $750 3D printer that incorporated some of the off-patent technologies from the 1980s.
Expansion of 3D printing (2010-2015)
The consumer market for 3D printers expanded in the 2010s, fueled in part by the continued expiration of 20th-century patents. Offerings included branded 3D printers, unbranded kits sold on eBay, and 3D printers funded on crowdfunding sites. Prices of bare-bones consumer 3D printers fell to $500-$600. Higher-end consumer printers gained advanced features that made them easier to use and maintain.
Innovations in 3D design software and improvements in printer reliability contributed to the spread of consumer and industrial 3D printers in shared makerspaces, commercial establishments, libraries, and universities. 3D file sharing also became widespread, both for paid and free models. One 3D file website, Thingiverse, had more than 2 million active users in 2015. Transmission of 3D design files occurred not only through mainstream file-sharing sites such as Thingiverse, 3DShook, and Cults but also through anonymous channels, including internet torrents (a distributed, hard-to-trace online file-sharing method). At the same time, materials for consumer and industrial 3D printers grew more diverse and were sold by more companies, helping to reduce 3D printing costs.
Print-on-demand services also expanded in this period, offering a wide variety of materials, including plastics, precious metals, and ceramics. These services allowed consumers to purchase a 3D-printed part made from their own 3D design file but fabricated by a third party. Some of the early print-on-demand services offered the ability to purchase printing services from a peer-to-peer network of individually owned desktop 3D printers.
The 3D printing industry began to show signs of weakening in 2014 after a period of growth and consolidation. In June 2015, Time magazine reported that the stocks of four leading 3D printing companies had “lost between 71% and 80% of their market value in the past 17 months.” Between January and October 2015, the 3D printing company Stratasys laid off 36% of staff in its MakerBot division.
At the same time, annual grants of 3D printing-related patents more than doubled between 2010 and 2015, from 247 to 545.
Recent 3D printing history (2015-Present)
The period from 2015 to 2019 has seen renewed 3D printing investment, in terms of both research and development and investment in growing companies, and federal departments and agencies — such as the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — have invested a combined total of hundreds of millions of dollars in 3D printing initiatives over this period.
At the same time, the price of consumer 3D printers has continued to fall. As of July 2019, a basic 3D plastic printer can be purchased online for less than $150. 3D printers in the low hundd-dollar range generally can be used after simple assembly or directly out of the box.34 The input material for these basic 3D printers is usually a spool of plastic filament, which can be purchased for less than $9 per pound.
Sales of both industrial and consumer 3D printers have continued to rise.
3D-print-on-demand services now serve the consumer and industrial markets. These services provide access to industrial-grade 3D printers, allowing users to create high-precision parts out of plastic or other materials. In general, individuals do not have to create their own files for 3D printing; many online databases of 3D design files are available. Users also may join online 3D printing communities, some of which have hundreds of thousands to millions of users.
3D printing still makes up less than 1% of manufacturing revenues worldwide. Further, analysts predict that most future products will be created through traditional manufacturing methods, even when 3D printing is technologically mature. Some estimates predict that 3D printing will eventually account for 5%-10% of total global manufacturing revenues.
Several issues may limit the overall effectiveness and utility of current 3D printing technologies, including quality control, cybersecurity, and relative production speed as compared to traditional manufacturing. New evaluation methods, certification programs, cybersecurity advances, and research and development programs may help to address these limiting issues.
- Riel Miller, Wolfgang Michalski & Barrie Stevens, "The Future of Money", in The Future of Money, at 21.
- "How a 3-D printer works" section: 3D Printing: Overview, Impacts, and the Federal Role, at 3.
- "History of 3D printers" section: Id. at 4-8.