Back in 1980’s the concepts of 3D printing were invented and implemented with
- Stereolithography (SLA) by Hideo Kodama (1980),
- Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) by Scott Crump (1988), who later founded Stratasys, and
- Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) by Carl Deckard (1988).
Most approaches secured with patents by companies like Stratasys, like the famous US #5,121,329: Apparatus and Method for Creating Three-Dimensional Objects (applied 1989, granted 1992) and others were thereby inaccessible for innovation outside of the patent holders and due the high pricing also inaccessible for users – a period of stagnation happened.
Once the patents expired (~2009), and that’s truly a lesson against patents, a surge of innovation occured and the prices for 3D printers fell from 100K+ USD range below 3K USD for the same functionality and print quality.
Adrian Bowyer, a british academic, coined the term of RepRap (2005), the replicating rapid prototyping and designing 3D printers which can print parts for itself: self-replication. Hobbyists started to adapt the design and push it further, since all plans were Open Source aka Open Source Hardware, it was easy to improve and iterate the designs. Eventually the Prusa Mendel as developed by Josef Prusa and reduced overall complexity and his next iteration was most significant: Prusa i3 (2012). This third iteration became quasi standard for low cost 3D printers for the next years and his Prusa Research company surged. See also RepRap Principle and RepRap.org Blog Archive.
- RepRap Darwin: XY head and Z bed, threaded rods based
- RepRap Mendel & Huxley: XZ head and Y bed, threaded rods based
- Prusa Mendel: XZ head and Y bed, threaded rods based
- Prusa i3: XZ head and Y bed, laser cut XZ frame
Josef Prusa summarizing his history 2010-2019, representing part of the spirit of the RepRap movement:
2009-2013: MakerBot & Thingiverse
US-based MakerBot was at the beginning (2009) a major driving force to the Open Source 3D printing community as partially funded also by Adrian Bowyer and his wife. MakerBot also runs Thingiverse, the major repository of free 3D models and designs for 3D printing. As MakerBot struggled with sales, after receiving Venture Capital and later bought by Stratasys (2013) it left the Open Source principle at the same time Thingiverse struggled since to stay functional (2019). In 2020 Thingiverse was given some attention, it seems now taken care of better.
- CupCake CNC: Z head, XY bed, laser cut wood frame
- Thing-o-Matic: Z head, XY bed, laser cut wood frame
- Replicator 2: XY head, Z bed, metal frame
2011-2016: Kickstarter Hype
With the expiration of patents held by Stratasys and other companies (2009-), the surge for Kickstarter-based 3D printers began, sub 1000 USD printers became widely available, but also many failures and plain scams happened. Printrbot started as Kickstarter and thrived for a few years as US-based 3D printer company, also Snapmaker and FORM 1 by Formlabs made a successful debut, while sub 100 USD 3D printer like MakiBox, metal Eventorbot or slick Buccaneer failed at different stages.
2018: Year of Chinese 3D Printers
In 2016-2018 chinese manufacturers (Geeetech, Creality, Anycubic, FLSUN, TEVO, CTC etc.) started to develop Prusa i3-like machines and the companies started to copy each others parts and improvements at a rapid pace. As a result, many small US companies, like Printrbot, which contributed significantly to the Open Source movement, closed doors for good (2018).
A big game changer was Ender 3 as manufactured by Creality, priced at USD 150-200 incl. shipment, providing excellent printing quality, at a price which was hard to compete by anyone else. Notable was, Creality open sourced Ender 3 entirely, as the Open Source community built up pressure to chinese manufacturers which spit out each month a new Prusa i3 derivative (e.g. different build volumes, slight improvements of extruders etc) back in 2018/2019.
As a side note, the chinese manufactured 3D printer broke the RepRap principle and used other means to produce their parts, while Prusa Research has a 3D printer farm to manufacture their parts.
Western Innovation & Chinese Manufacturing
It became obvious the past years (2010-2019), that true innovation still remained in the west, Czech-based Prusa Research, Denmark-based RepRap.me with Diamond Hotend (3-in-1 and 5-in-1), or UK-based E3D or US-based Slice Engineering with their hotends and extruder technology, and the chinese manufacturer which cloned or copied the Closed- and Open-Source designs within weeks and sold at fraction of the price as by the original inventors. Often chinese manufactures tried to simplify hotend designs and compromised significant features – to copy a design didn’t mean the design was understood.
As pointed out, Creality, one of the big chinese 3D printer manufacturer, started to adapt and join the Open Source Hardware movement, with the release of the Ender 3 source files and get properly certified – time will tell – as of end of 2019 – if they stay true to their commitment, and whether other chinese 3D printer manufacturer follow and become also actual innovators.
In late 2020 Creality announced a belt-based printer named CR-30 aka 3DPrintMill as a result of collaboration with Naomi Wu and acknowledging all the previous research of developers like Bill Steele and Karl Brown (White Knight Belt) the printer is based on – and renewed their commitment to Open Source the CR-30 – a nice development.