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25 Years of SFF

September 1, 2014

Filed under: 3D printing,additive manufacturing,event — Terry Wohlers @ 13:53

I had the pleasure of attending the 25th Solid Freeform Fabrication Symposium last month. It was organized by and held at the University of Texas at Austin—the birthplace of selective laser sintering (SLS). The conference is the longest-running event worldwide on additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing.

The beginning of the program was dedicated to the first five years of AM. The first speaker, Harris Marcus, previously of UT and now at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, discussed the founding of the SFF Symposium. After 15 minutes of interesting history, it was my turn to provide a perspective of the early years. We did not have data projectors and computer-based presentations back then, so it was decided to go back in more than one way to the 1980s. Fortunately, my hundreds of 35 mm slides were in a state that made it possible to organize a 30-minute presentation that I hoped would capture many of the most important developments.

It was a little tricky for SFF organizer Dave Bourell of UT to secure a 35 mm projector, but he did. I discovered that morning how dull the projected images were in the old days, compared to today’s high-end data projectors. I asked for an audience show of hands and found that it was the first time for many in the room to experience the projection of 35 mm slides. I was relieved when all 78 slides dropped down from the 80-capacity carrousel without a hitch. More than 17 years had passed since I had given a 35 mm slide presentation.

From left to right: Terry Wohlers, Chuck Hull, Carl Deckard, Lisa Crump, and Dave Bourell

Chuck Hull, founder of 3D Systems, followed my presentation. He said the original idea of stereolithography came to him in 1982, and he built the first part in March 1983. He gave the part to his wife, who has as it to this day. I remember seeing 3D Systems’ SLA-1 beta system at SME’s Autofact in November 1987 in Detroit, Michigan. The company introduced the first commercially available product, the SLA-250, the following year.

Chuck, 75, looks great and hasn’t changed much in recent years. I enjoyed having lunch with him at the symposium and discussing his work. He told me that he has an R&D team of 15-20 people, including interns, and is hoping to one day transition from managing R&D projects to serving in more of a strategic capacity. We discussed travel and Hawaii, finding and keeping good employees, and the challenges of keeping foreign students in the U.S. after they have graduated from American universities.

Lisa Crump, co-founder of Stratasys, also gave an excellent presentation. She revealed details of how difficult it was in the early days to secure investment dollars and to keep from running out of money as they developed and commercialized the first fused deposition modeling (FDM) machine. Mike Cima of MIT gave an interesting view of the early days of binder jetting technology that is used today at many companies. Ely Sachs, then of MIT, and Cima were co-developers of what was then referred to as 3DP (short for 3D printing) technology. Carl Deckard of Structured Polymers and the inventor of SLS, and Joe Beaman of UT, gave intriguing presentations focused on the invention and what followed. Deckard was a student at UT when he conceived SLS with the help of Beaman, an advisor and supporter.

It was a lot of fun to reflect on the past and observe how far we’ve come in 25 years. Congratulations to the inventors of AM and the founders of the companies that played such an important role in shaping what followed. And, congrats to Dave Bourell and the UT team for keeping the SFF symposium alive for so many years.