The History of Consumer 3D Printing (ft. Adrian Bowyer and Sanjay Mortimer!)

In this article Jack explains how the 3D printing revolution began. The article shows the products, events, people, companies, and ideas that impacted the 3D printing industry.

  • 04/03/2020

  • Jack (3D Now)

  • Tags: 3D Printing History Adrian Bowyer

  The 3d printing industry has exploded in the last few years and more people than ever are getting in on the action. There are so many 3d printer types, filament materials, 3d slicers, controller boards, hotends, bed surfaces, etc, but it all started in 2007 with Dr. Adrian Bowyer’s RepRap project. In this article I will be looking at the events, products, people, companies, and ideas that shaped the 3d printing industry into what it is today. Many people have different ideas of what was most impactful, but I included what had the most wide-spread support from my research. I also have a Q and A with Adrian Bowyer of the RepRap project and Sanjay of E3D-Online which will be incorporated in this article.

  Now, before the RepRap project began, most 3d printers were resin based SLA printers or SLS printers and were extremely expensive. They were meant for industrial applications and large companies, not consumers. In 1989 the FDM patent was issued to Scott Crump, who then co-founded Stratasys, an industrial 3d printer manufacturer. The FDM, or fused deposition modeling patent only allowed Stratsys, and other companies that paid a royalty, to sell 3d printers that melt and extrude thermoplastic materials layer-by-layer. This made selling consumer 3d printers extremely difficult as the prices were too high for the average consumer.

  In 2006, students at Cornell University released the Fab@Home Model 1, the world’s first multi-material consumer 3d printer. This was a breakthrough at a time where additive manufacturing machines were still closed-source and extremely expensive. The goal of the printer was to create a versatile, low cost, and DIY printer for consumers. While many of these machines were built across the world, the Fab@Home Model 1 would not spark the 3d printing revolution that the RepRap project soon would. The Model 1 used syringes to lay down material and could not print very large or detailed models. It was also extremely slow and the syringes had to be refilled often. These drawbacks were some of the reasons why the Model 1 did not take off. This is where Adrian Bowyer and the RepRap project came into the picture.

  In 2007, Dr. Adrian Bowyer, an engineering senior lecturer at the University of Bath, released the RepRap Darwin 3d printer which would change the industry forever. This printer successfully printed over half of its total parts, effectively cloning itself. The RepRap project is what kicked off the rapid movement of consumer 3d printing and is thought of as the start of the consumer 3d printing industry. Now instead of me explaining the RepRap project, I actually reached out to Adrian Bowyer himself and he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions for this article. So without further ado, here is my interview with the creator of the RepRap project and effectively, “the father of 3d printing” Dr. Adrian Bowyer.

Adrian Bowyer Interview
What is the RepRap project and why did you start it?

  The RepRap Project is a project to make a general purpose self-replicating manufacturing machine. It happens to use 3D printing, as that is currently humanity's most versatile manufacturing technology. (If there were a better one, it would use that.) I started RepRap because the Industrial Revolution led to the largest reduction in human poverty in history (absolute poverty was around 90% of the World's population in 1800; now it is below 9%). But industry only uses methods that produce arithmetic growth - an injection moulding machine that makes 10,000 items today, will make 10,000 tomorrow. However a self-replicating manufacturing machine is capable of geometric growth.

What are the fundamentals of a RepRap printer?

  Most designs are basically a computer-controlled glue gun. They lay down a cross-section of the object to be printed on a flat surface, move up a fraction of a millimeter, lay down the next layer, and so on. This process is called Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF for short).

Do you think the industry today is representing your initial idea of the RepRap project?

  A stage of it, yes. I thought, and still think, that it would be taken up first by companies who would make RepRap machines. These are analogous to the print and fax shops that sprang up everywhere when the laser printer and fax machine were invented. But that was only an intermediate stage. Those technologies moved into people's homes, and I think that 3D printing will do the same eventually.

What do you think will be the biggest impact 3d printers will have in the future?

  They will be a component of a post-scarcity society.

What do you think is the next hurdle to overcome in the 3d printing industry?

  Working easily with a diverse range of physical materials in single prints to make highly functional objects.

What 3d printer do you use?

  RepRap Ormerods and Fishers. We also have an Ultimaker and a Prusa SL1 that were kindly given to us by their manufacturers.

  After the RepRap project kicked off, many other people wanted to get in on the action, but the FDM patent as well as astronomical prices were keeping the consumer 3d printing industry from exploding. In 2009, the FDM patent expired, paving the way for companies and people around the world to develop and sell FDM 3d printers. This was a huge turning point in the industry. Also in 2009, the BfB RapMan 3D printer was released. (BfB stands for Bits from Bytes) It was a DIY kit that used 3mm ABS or PLA plastic to print 3d models. It was advertised as a 3d printer for the home and was not super precise or professional. If you wanted to print with removable supports or 2 materials, you could opt for the dual extruder option. At about the same time in 2009 MakerBot industries started as well as Thingiverse. Zach Smith created as a place to find and download 3d models. Thingiverse was created as a part of the MakerBot ecosystem, but grew to be a huge repository for 3d models that any 3d printer could use. MakerBot Industries began by breaking away from the RepRap project. It’s founders left to develop user-friendly 3d printer kits for the masses. They released their Cupcake CNC 3d printer for under a thousand dollars that exploded with popularity. Now, most people believe that MakerBot started as a closed-source money hungry business, but that claim is simply not true. Only after a company almost created an exact replica of MakerBot’s 3d printer design, did MakerBot switch to closed-source hardware. This scare was too much for MakerBot and they quickly switched over to closed-source hardware and software for their Replicator 2 3d printer.

  In 2010, the Prusa Mendel was released by Josef Prusa, at the time a member of the RepRap project team. The design was tuned to be more precise and easier to build. The design quickly became popular and other companies began to create their own RepRap printer designs. Also in 2010, Wade’s extruder was released to the public. This extruder was designed to be robust, have a strong pulling force, low cost, and DIY. It was made for RepRap printers and was an awesome upgrade. Another great addition to RepRap printers was the RAMPS board, or RepRap Arduino Mega Polulu Shield. It was an arduino shield that used Polulu stepper drivers and provided a low cost and easy way to control a RepRap 3d printer. Firmware could be easily changed because it was controlled by an arduino mega and the stepper drivers could also be swapped out.

  In 2011, PrintrBot became the most funded technology project on Kickstarter at the time raising $830,000. The PrintrBot was a kit that claimed to be assembled in less than an hour and for $500. Many people hopped on the bandwagon and bought their PrinterBots, but unfortunately in 2018 the company had to shut down due to low sales. Also in 2011, Marlin firmware was created for RepRap and Ultimaker printers. The firmware was derived from Sprinter and GRBL softwares by Erik van der Zalm and allowed for lots of customizability. Today, it’s still an open-source software using the arduino platform and is claimed to be the most widely used 3d printer firmware in the world. Ultimaker was also started in 2011, creating a high quality 3d printer for prosumers. The founders were experimenting with the open-source designs of the RepRap project in a makerspace in the Netherlands when they came up with the Ultimaker design. Ultimaker released their first printer, the Ultimaker Original, and it became very popular as it focused heavily on print speed and print quality. While the printer was a little expensive compared to the other RepRap printers at the time, it used a new motion system and implemented numerous new features that would soon be standard in a lot of consumer printers. Also in 2011, Repetier Host came out that provided an easy way to control your 3d printer. It had an 3d object viewer, 3d slicer, gcode editor, manual controller, and more. People could connect to their printer over USB and control almost all aspects of their machine. It had a user-friendly interface that helped more people get involved in the 3d printing community. Slic3r was also released in 2011 and was created by the RepRap community with open-source software in mind. The toolpath generator, also called a slicer, was free, powerful, and community driven. It is hosted on Github today, and has over 1,000 forks, including PrusaSlicer. PrusaSlicer is an advanced fork of Slic3r that is developed by Prusa Research and is created specifically for Prusa Research 3d printers.

  Moving on to 2012, the FormLabs Form 1 SLA printer was released, paving the way for lower cost consumer SLA 3d printing. The Form 1 stood out from other consumer 3d printers because it had extremely detailed prints, and resin models had different properties than normal FDM 3d printing. Although resin 3d printing came with post processing challenges, the extreme level of detail and precision added to its popularity. Also in 2012, the Open Source Hardware Association was established by engineer Alicia Gibb. The association was founded with the purpose to “organize conferences and events, educate the general public about open source hardware and its socially beneficial issues, organize the movement around shared values and principles, facilitate STEM education through the use of open source hardware, and finally to collect, compile, and publish data about the movement.” Its advocacy for open-source projects paved the way for community learning and innovation. Cura slicer was also created in 2012 by Daivd Braam. Cura was released as a fully featured 3d slicer that was easy to use and very efficient. It was designed for Ultimaker printers, but could be used for any RepRap design. Cura’s breakthrough was the speed of slicing, as other programs took much longer to slice the same objects. Today, the slicer is open-source and is used by over 1 million users worldwide. One of the most important company establishments in the 3d printing industry in 2012 was Prusa Research. Josef Prusa, the creator of many revolutionary 3d printing products, formally created his company. That year, they released the Prusa Mendel i3, the third iteration of the popular Prusa Mendel design. It evolved into the Prusa i3 design we know of today. The printer had much easier construction, a complete redesign, many upgrades, and a new Prusa nozzle. Prusa Research eventually became more than just a 3d printer manufacturing company, as they have a “Research” part of their company. Every year after creation, Prusa Research has released revolutionary new products to the community that have paved the way for the entire industry. Their research and development has produced some amazing products.

  Moving forward a few years to 2014, Creality 3D was established. This 3d printer manufacturer created simple, good quality, and extremely low cost consumers printers. The CR-10 design erupted with popularity, as the printer was only $400, and had a massive 300*300*400mm print area. Creality would soon release the Ender-3 which also exploded with popularity, as that design was only $200 for a very capable 3d printer. Also in 2014, E3D released their V6 hotend, setting the standard for quality and high performance 3d printer hotends. The V6 was designed to decrease bulk, make maintenance easier, improve support for flexible materials, shorten heat times, increase temperature control, and improve nozzle selections. I was also lucky enough to ask Sanjay from e3d some questions about their V6 hotend and its origins. Here is my quick interview.

Sanjay Mortimer Interview
Why did you create the V6 hotend?

  Honestly - in the beginning it was because we were broke student-teachers who couldn't afford hotends. So we set about trying to make one out of what we had, which was metal. Prior to this hotends relied on 'high-temperature resistance' plastics, like PEEK and PTFE, which were able to withstand 245C, which meant they could get hot enough to melt PLA and ABS, but not the higher temperature materials like Nylon and PC that were just starting to become available. These high temperature plastics were expensive, and so were hotends. We figured out that by having an effective heatsink, and by having a short thermal transition made from a less conductive metal that we could make a hotend out of metal, which we thought was great, because we could make it out of a bunch of old screws we had lying around. But when we posted the design online we got so much positive feedback, and so many requests to buy one that we decided that we eventually decided we should start selling them.

How did you come up with the v6 design?

  It was an obvious evolution of the v5 - with v5 being made in my classroom workshop as a school-teacher it was quite rudimentary - but we soon moved to production machinery when people started buying lots of them. Production machinery meant we could make smaller heatsinks with finer pitched fins due to thinner grooving tools being available. Also we discovered ways of integrating the bulky pneumatic connectors into the body of the hotend, meaning we could support both bowden and direct in a single design. Although now deprecated - we also came up with a way of clamping a thermistor in place with a washer, which looking back now is awfully fiddly, but the people who remember the awful kapton taping process all previous hotend thermistor systems will understand what a big deal it was back then.

At the time, did you know your hotend would pave the way for 3d printing hotends in the future?

  We really didn't! At the time we were just two broke teachers with something that seemed to work pretty well, and seemed that people wanted to buy, so we made some and started selling them. After a few months it was clear that hotends was just about a viable way to support ourselves, and we quickly started getting calls from pretty serious engineering companies, as well as printer manufacturers. We learned quickly, and realised that a well designed all-metal hotend system would usually be a better design choice for most use cases of printers. We spent a lot of time on research and development, and figuring out what really made hotends work and a fundamental level. We were surprised to see that people remixed our ideas and expanded on them in the wider community, and that some even made knockoff-clones.

Why did you feel that you needed to get involved in the RepRap and 3d printing community?

  We were involved with the RepRap 3D printing community long before we started making hotends. The idea of having a low cost 3D printer was absolutely tantalising as teachers. Kids are often able to imagine and even design great things, but get held back by the fact that many manufacturing processes take years to learn, and that classrooms often have only a little equipment. A low cost 3D printer would solve a lot of that. We saw a kit for a 3D printer (eMaker Huxley) that we could just about afford, so we bought it, and then used it to print a few more printers. (Nophead Mendel90s) The RepRap project was the whole reason any of this was happening and we spent hours on the forums learning new things, and making small changes to our printers to suit our needs, or to be able to make them with what we had on hand. That was the magic of the project, that you could get in, make changes, and really understand, change and improve the machines and then go back to the community, release and ask people for their feedback.

  Now in 2015, Mosaic Manufacturing launched their Palette kickstarter which promised a system to 3d print in 4 colors or materials with virtually any single extruder 3d printer. This product sliced and fused together multiple spools of filament and created a custom gcode file for the printer to create a transition tower. This product allowed consumers to print in multiple colors and materials very easily, which was not an option before.

  One of the most recent features making its way into 3d printers is 32-bit control boards. These boards provide much more processing power and allow for lots more features, including touchscreens, wifi cloud integration, 3d model visualization, live webcam feeds, and much more “smart” printing features. These boards are quickly making their way into 3d printers now, and will definitely open roads to more advanced features.

  With so much innovation happening in just the past 15 years, imagine what the future will look like. The 3d printing industry and community is fantastic, as we all learn from each other and fuel creativity and technological advancement. This wraps up my article on the history of consumer 3d printing and I really hoped you have enjoyed it. I finally want to thank Adrian Bowyer from the RepRap project and Sanjay from E3D for answering my questions as well as the members of my community discord that helped brainstorm for this article.