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History Of The 3D Printer: From An Expensive Machine To A Cosplayer's Ultimate Tool

The expiration of patents on 3D printers led to the rise in printing for cosplays.
A group of Shoretroopers at a con. Their cosplays are almost completely 3D printed. (Photo courtesy Andrew Liptak)
A group of Shoretroopers at a con. Their cosplays are almost completely 3D printed. (Photo courtesy Andrew Liptak)

Within the cosplay world, it seems as though everyone and their mother has a 3D printer or two. Where such a device might have cost in the tens of thousands of dollars a decade ago, you can now find a variety of low-cost machines that are widely available and affordable for the making public. The driving force behind that enormous drop in price? The expiration of key patents in the mid-2000s, which has allowed for a variety of companies to jump into the marketplace with machines of their own, opening up the technology to the wider cosplay world.

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A patent is a powerful tool for inventors and companies: it’s a right granted to the owner that ensures exclusivity on the idea or invention, allowing them to benefit from the work that they put into developing their idea. As Jacob Goldstein of the NPR Podcast Planet Money put it: “Patents reward the person who came up with the idea, and they encourage people to try and come up with new inventions to improve on things.”

The history of 3D printing goes back to the 1970s: writer David E. H. Jones proposed the technology in an installment of his column Ariadne in the October 1974 issue of New Scientist:

"This week my polymoptic friend Daedalus continues his musings on new plastics fabrication processes. He points out that many liquid monomers can be polymerised to solid by ultraviolet light, or even visible light. Accordingly a laser-beam shone through a tank of monomer should leave an optically straight fibre in its path."

Jones went on to propose that if you were to bounce this light around in a complex pattern, you could manufacture just about anything. By the 1980s, innovators began to take that idea and run with it: Japanese lawner Dr. Hideo Kodama submitted a patent for a 3D printing device in 1981, but that application was denied, while a group of French inventors likewise made some forays into the technology.

The first patents for what would become known as Sterolithography technology came in 1986, when inventor Chuck Hull received a patent for an “apparatus for production of three-dimensional objects by stereolithography,” and followed up with a number of others in the years that followed, such as “Methods and apparatus for production of three-dimensional objects by stereolithography”.

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Patents typically last for around 20 years, and in that time, the owner of the patent can profit off of it by licensing it to a company that wants to use it in products of their own. That’s what happened with 3D printing: Hull set up his own company, 3D Systems, and in 1988, he released his first product, the SLA-1. Other companies like Stratasys were formed around the same time, and began releasing their own products and innovations to the larger field. Over the course of the 1990s and 2000s, the technology began to mature.

Prior to this point, 3D printing was an expensive proposition, due in part to the fact that companies had to license the patents required to sell the machines in the first place. As a result, a 3D printer was out of reach of most consumers.

That began to change in the mid-2000s as patents on 3D printers began to expire, allowing the technology to explode into the mainstream. According to John F. Hornick in Robotics Business Review, nearly 225 key 3D printing patents expired between 2002 and 2014, while others lapsed in the years that followed, and he noted that while the change wasn’t instantaneous, “there certainly are a lot of startups making Material Extrusion machines.” The open-source movement took hold with projects like the University of Bath’s RepRap project and as companies like MakerBot entered the field with the intention of driving down the cost and opening up accessibility for makers. According to TechCrunch, the price of a Fused Deposition Modeling printer dropped from more than $10,000 per unit to under $1,000.

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That newfound lower cost made the technology more accessible to the wider cosplay world, leading to the ongoing explosion of making. Not only could cosplayers afford the machines, more of them arrived on the market: companies like Flashforge, Formlabs, Prusa Research, Snapmaker, and Ultimaker, all of which have developed low-cost extrusion and resin printers.

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This accessibility breeds new opportunities for cosplayers. Where crafting a complicated prop might have taken years of practice to get right, a cosplayer could simply print one up, aided by repositories of free models like Thingiverse. Dedicated makers go set up a shop making props for other cosplayers, faster and cheaper than hand-crafting them one by one. And institutions like libraries and makerspaces could afford their own for the public to use.

Printers aren’t the end-all-and-be-all of cosplay, but they’ve become a useful and indispensable tool to keep in one’s workshop, ready to help the next project.

About the Author

Andrew Liptak avatar

Andrew Liptak

Contributor

Andrew Liptak is a writer and historian from Vermont. He is the author of the forthcoming book Cosplay: A History (Saga Press, 2021), and his work has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine, io9, Kirkus Reviews, Lightspeed Magazine, Seven Days, Tor.com, VentureBeat, The Verge, and other publications. A member of the 501st Legion’s New England Garrison and Green Mountain Squad, you might find him at a convention dressed as a Shoretrooper, Clone Trooper, Stormtrooper, or First Order Stormtrooper. You can visit his website, follow him on Twitter, or subscribe to his newsletter.

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