Support Material: How One Company Built The 3-D Printer Market Layer By Layer

Joseph Flaherty | Wired | May 14, 2013

Upstart 3-D printer companies have captured the attention of makers, but a 30 year old company called 3D Systems is having a record year on Wall Street. The company just announced an 81 percent increase in sales of their 3-D printers, catapulting their market capitalization over $4 billion. Their Cube 3-D printer is the first of its kind for sale at a big box store like Staples. And while MakerBot might have snagged the sweet brand name “Replicator” from Star Trek, 3D Systems got the exclusive license to print personalized 3-D figurines of Starship Enterprise crew members coinciding with the new movie’s premiere.

This success is especially impressive since it seemed like science fiction on March 9, 1983, when Antoinette Hull got a late night phone call from her husband, Chuck, who was busy tinkering with a “3-D printer” prototype at his lab. After hundreds of failed experiments that looked like plastic spaghetti, he had finally gotten his machine to work. Dressed in her pajamas, she got in the car and drove to the lab where she saw the first 3-D print — a little plastic cup she carries in her purse thirty years later.

According 3D Systems’ current CEO, Avi Reichental, the fact that Hull was able to get his first rapid-prototyping machine up and running at all was impressive considering how limited and expensive the computers of the time were. Remember, at that point, the world was still a year away from the launch of the now-iconic Apple Macintosh, CAD tools were underpowered and out of reach financially, and standards that modern 3-D printing entrepreneurs take for granted, like a file format to communicate between computers and 3-D printers, didn’t exist.