Charles Hull invented the first commercial 3D printer and offered it for sale through his company 3D Systems in 1986. Hull’s machine used stereolithography, a technique that relies upon a laser to solidify an ultraviolet-sensitive polymer material wherever the ultraviolet laser touches.
The technology remained relatively unknown to the greater public until the second decade of the 21st century. A combination of U.S. government funding and commercial startups has created a new wave of unprecedented popularity around the idea of 3D printing since that time.
First, President Barack Obama’s administration awarded $30 million to create the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) in 2012 as a way of helping to revitalize U.S. manufacturing. NAMII acts as an umbrella organization for a network of universities and companies that aims to refine 3D printing technology for rapid deployment in the manufacturing sector.
Second, a new wave of startups has made the idea of 3D printing popular within the so-called “Maker” movement that emphasizes do-it-yourself projects. Many of those companies offer 3D printing services or sell relatively cheap 3D printers that can cost just hundreds rather than thousands of dollars.