The futurologist Jeremy Rifkin claimed that 3D printing signals the beginning of a third industrial revolution, succeeding the production line assembly that dominated manufacturing starting in the late 19th century.
The term "3D printing" originally referred to a process that deposits a binder material onto a powder bed with inkjet printer heads layer by layer. More recently, the term is being used in popular vernacular to encompass a wider variety of additive manufacturing techniques.
Early additive manufacturing equipment and materials were developed in the 1980s. In 1981, Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute invented two AM fabricating methods of a three-dimensional plastic model with photo-hardening thermoset polymer, where the UV exposure area is controlled by a mask pattern or the scanning fiber transmitter. But on July 16, 1984 Alain Le Méhauté, Olivier de Witte and Jean Claude André filed their patent for the stereolithography process. It was three weeks before Chuck Hull filed his own patent for stereolithography. The application of French inventors were abandoned by the French General Electric Company (now Alcatel-Alsthom) and CILAS (The Laser Consortium). The claimed reason was "for lack of business perspective". Then in 1984, Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corporation developed a prototype system based on a process known as stereolithography, in which layers are added by curing photopolymers with ultraviolet light lasers.
AM processes for metal sintering or melting (such as selective laser sintering, direct metal laser sintering, and selective laser melting) usually went by their own individual names in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, nearly all metal working was produced by casting, fabrication, stamping, and machining; although plenty of automation was applied to those technologies (such as by robot welding and CNC), the idea of a tool or head moving through a 3D work envelope transforming a mass of raw material into a desired shape layer by layer was associated by most people only with processes that removed metal (rather than adding it), such as CNC milling, CNC EDM, and many others. But AM-type sintering was beginning to challenge that assumption. By the mid 1990s, new techniques for material deposition were developed at Stanford and
The umbrella term additive manufacturing gained wider currency in the decade of the 2000s. As the various additive processes matured, it became clear that soon metal removal would no longer be the only metalworking process done under that type of control (a tool or head moving through a 3D work envelope transforming a mass of raw material into a desired shape layer by layer). It was during this decade that the term subtractive manufacturing appeared as a retronym for the large family of machining processes with metal removal as their common theme. At this time, the term 3D printing still referred only to the polymer technologies in most minds, and the term AM was likelier to be used in metalworking and end use part production contexts than among polymer, inkjet, and stereolithography enthusiasts. The term subtractive has not replaced the term machining, instead complementing it when a term that covers any removal method is needed.
By the early 2010s, the terms 3D printing and additive manufacturing evolved senses in which they were alternate umbrella terms for AM technologies, one being used in popular vernacular by consumer - maker communities and the media, and the other used officially by industrial AM end use part producers, AM machine manufacturers, and global technical standards organizations.
Both terms reflect the simple fact that the technologies all share the common theme of sequential-layer material addition/joining throughout a 3D work envelope under automated control.
(Other terms that had been used as AM synonyms (although sometimes as hypernyms), include desktop manufacturing, rapid manufacturing [as the logical production-level successor to rapid prototyping], and on-demand manufacturing [which echoes on-demand printing in the 2D sense of printing].) The 2010s were the first decade in which metal end use parts such as engine brackets and large nuts would be grown (either before or instead of machining) in job production rather than obligately being machined from bar stock or plate.
Agile tooling is a term used to describe the process of using modular means to design tooling that is produced by additive manufacturing or 3D printing methods to enable quick prototyping and responses to tooling and fixture needs. Agile tooling uses a cost effective and high quality method to quickly respond to customer and market needs. It can be used in hydro-forming, stamping, injection molding and other manufacturing processes.
As technology matured, several authors had begun to speculate that 3D printing could aid in sustainable development in the developing world.