You've already chosen your study programme? Apply online now.

3D-printing: Past, present and future of an innovation in progress

  -   15. March 2017
Source: mebner1/

An entire house built with the help of a 3D-printer within one day? When I first read the headline of an online article I came across, I would have loved to see my incredulous look. I knew 3D-printing had become very popular over the years, but for sure I did not yet expect the technology to be capable of building constructions of these dimensions. The news really made me curious about the topic and I started wondering about this ground-breaking innovation’s history. Next thing, I found myself clicking through numerous articles concerning 3D-printing to shed a light on this, for me, unfamiliar turf. Looking at 3D-printing’s history, something definitely took me by surprise. 3D-printing, by all means having become more popular over the last couple of years, is no innovation of the new millennium. On the contrary, it has been around for some time already.

Chuck Hull: The mastermind behind 3D-printing

Its origins date back as much as 31 years when American engineer Chuck Hull filed a patent for a process he called stereo-lithography in 1986, now known as 3D-printing. This innovation, like many others, was preceded by a problem. While working for a company specialising in plastic veneers using Ultra-Violet (UV) light to cover table tops, cupboards and other furniture with a plastic layer, Hull was confronted with the rather long-lasting process of prototyping new designs. The moulding and casting of small plastic parts could take up to two months at times causing a lot of frustration not only at Hull’s employer but among the entire industry. Therefore, Hull, being annoyed with this cumbersome process himself, was determined to find an alternative solution (demand pull).

An innovation is born – in the back of a lab

Very quickly he had an idea on how to overcome the existing issue. He wanted to put many thousand layers of plastic on top of each other and adhere them with the use of UV-light thus creating an item of three-dimensional form. In doing so he made use of the peculiarity of the liquid plastic used in the process: its polymers solidify under the exposure to UV-light. Working on his project in a backroom of his lab after hours, Hull built his first apparatus within a year of his idea. In 1986, he then filed a patent for the process portraying the birth of 3D-printing. In the same year, Hull founded his company called 3D-Systems which has become a leader in the 3D-printing industry with annual sales of more than $630 million in 2016. Still today, his company is dedicated to the process of stereo-lithography creating on-demand prototypes but also marketing its 3D-printers. Interestingly, looking back on the history of his innovation, it was initially aimed at facilitating the process of prototyping plastic models. After the patent was filed, for instance, doctors could build detailed replicas of organs to practice difficult surgeries beforehand. Over time though, scientists and engineers alike developed the technology of 3D-printing on the basis of the existing knowledge with more and more new types of 3D-printing and materials other than plastic (e.g.: metal) emerging (science push)6. Nowadays 3D-printers are even available to the general public, though the private-use of 3D-printers can only be seen as a hobby-market so far, with enthusiasts splashing out thousands of dollars to show off their creations– from little game figures to IPhone cases, the possibilities of what to print are limited almost only by your own imagination.

A bright future for 3D-printing

The future looks bright for 3D-printing. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers 3D-printing will not only become cheaper and thus more affordable for private-use, but also more efficient as well as faster, showing an incremental development. Recent projections estimate a market-growth of 20% annually with the global 3D-market supposedly reaching $8.6 billion by 2023. Therefore, the innovation is still far away from reaching its plateau on the S-Curve.

Source: Patrick Hanke

Source: Patrick Hanke

There are so many opportunities in various application-fields such as medical engineering (bio-printing) or even architecture, as seen in the example, that 3D-printing has the potential to change the way we consume goods – and consequently entire industries. Soon, we may not need to go shopping anymore – everything you may need may simply be available with the push of a button of a 3D-printer. 3D-printing, after looking deeper into the topic, is an incredibly interesting field that I am sure will have many more surprises in store for us over the next decades to come- I am excited about it, are you?

What do you think about 3D-printing? Does it really have the potential to change entire industries? What do you think are potential negative implications of these developments? Let’s get this conversation started in the comment section.

Who wrote it?

Patrick Hanke

Patrick Hanke studies at the European Management School in Mainz.


Silas Nikolaus
22-03-2017 21:09

Im personally very interested in the topic and the innovation of 3D printers in particular. I have to admit that I did not know that this innovation is that old already but I can imagine that it takes a lot of time to develop and to optimize as it still is. I am really curious on how 3D printing will develop further in the future. Especially in the medical sector this can be revolutionary. Good read!

Julia Ursu
22-03-2017 15:57

I´m personally as well very interested in 3D printing. I think that it is not just an innovation but as well a revolution. As you said, maybe one day we don´t need to go shopping anymore. In the medical industry is the 3D printing already implemented what is literally crazy if you think deeper that you have the possibility to print 3D organs! It´s impressive and I’m very interested what the future will be for 3D printing. I think that this will have a big future. Nice how you gave everybody an insight in this technology. It was a pleasure to read your article. Really nice Patrick!

Sophia Pan
22-03-2017 13:57

I have to admit that I also did not know about the long history of 3D printing. Thus, it was very interesting to read your article and to learn about the development of this innovation. It is incredible how far they have come now! I had also heard about a 3D-printed house before and was as impressed as you were. I think there are so many more possibilities that have to be explored and I believe that it has indeed the power to change entire industries. I think that it is important to further develop 3D printing and to optimize its usage. At the moment I think the main problem of this innovation is its price, as it is quite expensive and many resources are needed. I am also a bit concerned about the actual quality of 3D-printed things. How is the quality of the products compared to products that are produced in the old-fashion way? Is it really comparable?

Sandra Bleher
22-03-2017 12:27

I really enjoyed reading your article. I didn't know that the technology of 3D printing existed for such a long time. And I can barely imagine that it could be possible to even build a whole house with this technology one day. All in all I think 3D printing is a groundbreaking innovation. When I think about it, especially the benefits for the medicine come to my mind, because surgeons can use 3D printed models to practice even exceptional operations and form individual implants for their patients. But I think there are many other benefits in many other industries by using 3D printing.

Thorben Theis
22-03-2017 11:23

I never would have thought this innovation is that old. In my opinion this technology has opportunities in many fields. Things can be produced cheap and easy. This is beneficial for everyone. Nevertheless i think big constructions such as a house are far in the future but one day it will be possible. But for many people or industries this technology is beneficial for many people. Besides the opportunities this can be a threat to many manufacturers and their employees. For the future it is important that laws on what is allowed to be produced with 3D printing are essential.

Toni Dang
21-03-2017 19:56

I also do agree with you. The 3-D printing sector is really incredible. I can imagine what impact such a breakthrough can bring to us. An acquaintance of mine lost his leg due an accident and he told me that there are researchers that are working on a project like creating a natural look-alike prothese through 3-D printing.I can guess that the cost will be very high at the beginning but I think researchers will refine and optimize it and make those process and product going to work. I do not know wether we will succeed or how long it will take but I am looking forward that one day 3-D printing will benefit us a lot in our life.

Franziska Blum
21-03-2017 15:44

Your article was very interesting to read! I really like this technology, it seems that possibilities are endless. I am just a little concerned about where the material comes from. As it seems to be mainly plastic at the moment, we again can have a problem with plastic waste and decomposition. However, I eould like to test such a machine myself and print something with the 3D printer! As many industries can be affected by the technology, I am not sure if it might have a just positive impact in society and economics. Yes, it can make things easier , but others doing the "original" work behind might get serious problems. Let's wait how this technology develops in the future..

Mia Zerwas
21-03-2017 10:40

You addressed a very relevant topic: Jaron Lanier, an ethical active computer scientist made a very important point regarding 3D printing. He Lanier thinks that with 3D printers manufacturing processes could be automated. With 3D printers you could print almost every item after downloading a design (items are remembered in the Cloud) from the Internet. Lanier talks about printing out your own 3D printer, or items such as phones, which could have the consequence of mass deployment of factory workers. 3D printers also would have an impact on the transportation of goods. There is no need for shipping items: instead you just have to print them out. Also the recycling of goods would change: 'deprinters' accept objects that are no longer wanted, which could have a big impact on industries like fashion and clothing. Every piece of clothing would be customized and would not be washed but be put in the ‘deprinters’. Actually this technology would have an impact on all kinds of things that have to be "produced", since it would be cheaper and more convenient to print these out instead of manufacturing it (e.g. killing mass retailers). Not only 3D printers could affect areas like manufacturing and retail, but also other Artificial Intelligence technology have an impact on the job market. With the development of self-driving cars, the job of taxi drivers could be threatened, since these might be safer than humans’ driving. Another example is the development of robots as caregivers: these robots would learn from the input of information from real nurses, without compensating them and after that replace them. Also areas like education could be affected: with virtual classrooms, there is no need for paying a lot of money for education. This might have the consequence of educators losing their jobs.

Letizia Credico
20-03-2017 19:43

Building an entire house with the help of 3D printing? This advancement seems to be impossible, but also super interesting at the same time. Personally, I am very interested in future innovations as I have gained insights into 3D printing as well. What might sound trivial, however, can turn out to be problematic, in the way that manufacturing jobs could experience a decrease in the future. In this respect, 3D printers would replace construction workers, affecting the economy of the countries that highly depend on low-skilled jobs. Should this be the case, one has to think about creating new jobs in return. Nonetheless, I believe that 3D printing will be very successful in the future!

Samantha Beidinger
20-03-2017 16:22

Honestly, every time I heard “3D-Printing” I just reminded the episode of The Big Bang Theory, when two of the actors printed their own “plastic-selves”. Therefore I guess I made the same face as you, Patrick, when I started to read your text. 3D-printers made an incredible progress in their development – even though I still cannot imagine that soon we are able to print everything we are wishing for like clothes, foods and other stuff. However, 3D-printers have the potential to make life easier, faster and more efficient. Principally it is a great opportunity for the fields of medicine and engineering. I would love to change my mind about this innovation and see that even things we cannot imagine become reality. I am curious about the further development of 3D printing.

Katharina Blanckart
18-03-2017 19:35

Patrick, you gave a really nice insight into the topic of 3D printing, especially for someone who has not yet dealt intensely with this research area before. I found striking to hear about the possibility of “printing” house in the near or far future and the idea itself is simply stunning! I am personally very interested into the section bio 3D-printing. The need for donating organs is unimaginable and the life of a great number of people, both young and older, could be saved if there were enough donators and matching pairs. The development which can be observed on the black market for organs is terrifying; organized criminals use the desperately needed organs as goods and sell them for horrendous prices which often leaves other patients in need waiting and without a real prospect of salvation. Bio 3D-printers could solve this issue and bring great relief to this very tense situation and maybe even bridge the problem of finding a matching donator which is one of the main reasons why organ transplantations fail. Furthermore, this would also improve the situation in Asian countries where criminals “hunt” for organs to sell them. One aspect worrying me however, would be the resulting idea of a replacement part factory for humans and the potentially dissolving respect and care for our own health and bodies. The concept of 3D printing is still partly in infancy and I am curious to see how it will grow within the next years.

Marie Schubert
18-03-2017 15:57

I totally agree with you: “3D printing - I know that, but 3D printing related to building a house?” I think it is really incredible what seems to become possible with this technology. At the moment I cannot imagine that people are really making use of 3D-printing in their daily lives. It still seems to be far away. However, the fact that 3D-printing is constantly more affordable for private households and applicable for other materials than plastic is definitely indicating that 3D-printing will even become more present in the future, even for private persons. I also saw articles regarding 3D-printers printing food. For me this would be one of the most exciting possible application areas for the 3D printing technology. I am really curious to see how far this development will go. To my point of view, 3D printing might have the potential to change industries, but only in the very far future.

Beate Gaitzsch
17-03-2017 15:45

While reading your text, which is very interesting, I was really surprised how far developed the industry aready is. I heard of some of the possibilities to use it, but had no ideas of others. I think it can become very important in the future, especially in medical use or to produce consumer goods in a new and exiting way. I can really imagine more people having a printer, if more people and companies are starting to work on its development, also to decrease costs, which until today are probably the most important factor. However it could develop to be dangerous as well, as I heard of machines being able to print weapons from scratch with every detail. If this proves to be effective, controls on who owns a weapon could become more important, also here in Germany. But in my opinion the technology still needs to mature and will hopefully be useful in the future.



Corporate Partners


European Mangement School © 2018 | Imprint | Data Protection