Updated: Jan 21
The Early Years
AM has a history that can be traced back to the late 19th century and early 20th century with the introduction of layer based topographical maps. In 1982, Joseph E. Blanther patented a manufacturing method to create contour relief maps (Patent 473,901). These maps were created by impressing topographical contour lines on a series of wax plates. The plates were then cut according to the contour lines and stacked on top of each other to create a three-dimensional model that represented the terrain. This gave a rough approximation of terrain that could then be further enhanced by wrapping a paper map over the top of it. Other variants eventually emerged including the use of cardboard or transparent plates as the medium.
Around the same time in the 19th century, photosculpture was also invented. In 1860, Francois Willeme simultaneously photographed an object with 24 equally spaced cameras that were located around the circumference of a room. The silhouettes from these photos were then used to create a physical model by carving out 1/24th of it at a time. This was a very labor intensive method, so in 1904, Carlo Baese patented a method that used photographs and graduated light to expose a photosensitive gelatin (Patent 774,549). The gelatin would expand in proportion to the light exposure to create the physical model.
The Modern History of AM
Now let's fast forward a little bit to modern history to discuss a brief timeline of AM commercialization.
Modern AM technology origins can be traced to a stereolithography process created by Otto John Munz in 1951 (Patent 2,775,758). His process was essentially a series of layered 2D photographs printed on photosensitive emulsion. It was similar to the stereolithography machines we know today. Each layer was exposed individually and the build platform was lowered. However, the drawback to his system was that the 3D image of the object was contained within a clear cylinder after the process was completed. In order to get a final three-dimensional model, the image needed to be etched or carved out of the clear cylinder.
The following few decades included continued development of new AM techniques. However, the development of commercially available systems did not occur until 1987. It began with a patent originally owned by UVP Inc. and licensed to Charles Hull, a former employee (Patent 4,575,330). Hull used the patent to form the company 3D Systems. 3D Systems introduced a process that solidified thin layers of ultraviolet light-sensitive liquid polymer using a laser. The SLA-1 was the first commercially available AM system in the world.
Since the release of the SLA-1, new AM technologies are created yearly. Innovators are continuously creating groundbreaking variations of the seven ASTM designated processes. These advances make AM more viable for production and are driving exponential growth of the industry.
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