2014 passed with 3D printing gaining a huge amount of popularity, enough to become a household phrase. We've seen all the things created by 3D printers; toys, art, and prosthetics. Along with that, we've come to know many different types of 3D printers, varying from car sized ones that can print parts of buildings to ones as small as a pen that can seemingly draw in air. But 3D printing is an extremely simple concept. Why was 2014 the year it rose to prominence?
The short answer is that patents are expiring. Many major patents on 3D printing, especially laser-sintering, an inexpensive yet accurate method, expired last year, leaving the concept open to development by any willful person.
The basic concept of 3D printing is additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing adds materials to create something as opposed to subtractive manufacturing, which takes away material. Subtractive manufacturing is like a sculptor carving away at a block of marble while additive manufacturing is like a painter putting layer upon layers of paint on a canvas. Additive manufacturing allows the use of a wide variety of materials, but as in paintings, it has not allowed for the creation of 3D objects until around the 1980s.
In the 1980s MIT trademarked 3D printing at a company called 3D Systems. The company continued to patent a couple of methods of 3D printing, stereolithography and selective laser sintering. Photo polymerization uses a liquid plastic that becomes solid when exposed to ultraviolet light. Laser sintering melts the material into place with a laser. This allows it to use materials such as metal and ceramics.
When the patents on laser sintering and stereolithography expired this year, many smaller companies began to created 3D printers and with the increased amount of producers and consumers, the prices dropped from several thousands down to just hundreds. The expiration of patents allowed more inventions and discoveries.
The gif below shows a LIX pen, a 3D printing pen. The pen melts plastic like a glue gun, and the plastic hardens in a few seconds, retaining the shape it was drawn in.