In the 1980s, 3D printing techniques were considered suitable only for the production of functional or aesthetic prototypes, and a more appropriate term for it at the time was rapid prototyping. As of 2019, the precision, repeatability, and material range of 3D printing have increased to the point that some 3D printing processes are considered viable as an industrial-production technology, whereby the term additive manufacturing can be used synonymously with 3D printing. One of the key advantages of 3D printing is the ability to produce very complex shapes or geometries that would be otherwise impossible to construct by hand, including hollow parts or parts with internal truss structures to reduce weight. Fused deposition modeling (FDM), which uses a continuous filament of a thermoplastic material, is the most common 3D printing process in use as of 2020.
The general concept of and procedure to be used in 3D-printing was first described by Murray Leinster in his 1945 short story Things Pass By “But this constructor is both efficient and flexible. It feed magnetronic plastics — the stuff they make houses and ships of nowadays — into this moving arm. It makes drawings in the air following drawings it scans with photo-cells. But plastic comes out of the end of the drawing arm and hardens as it comes ... following drawings only” .
It was also described by Raymond F. Jones in his story, "Tools of the Trade," published in the November 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. He referred to it as a "molecular spray" in that story.
In 1971, Johannes F Gottwald patented the Liquid Metal Recorder, US3596285A, a continuous Inkjet metal material device to form a removable metal fabrication on a reusable surface for immediate use or salvaged for printing again by remelting. This appears to be the first patent describing 3D printing with rapid prototyping and controlled on-demand manufacturing of patterns.
Early additive manufacturing equipment and materials were developed in the 1980s.
The technology used by most 3D printers to date—especially hobbyist and consumer-oriented models—is fused deposition modeling, a special application of plastic extrusion, developed in 1988 by S. Scott Crump and commercialized by his company Stratasys, which marketed its first FDM machine in 1992.
The term 3D printing originally referred to a powder bed process employing standard and custom inkjet print heads, developed at MIT by Emanuel Sachs in 1993 and commercialized by Soligen Technologies, Extrude Hone Corporation, and Z Corporation.
The year 1993 also saw the start of an inkjet 3D printer company initially named Sanders Prototype,Inc and later named Solidscape, introducing a high-precision polymer jet fabrication system with soluble support structures, (categorized as a "dot-on-dot" technique).
In 1995 the Fraunhofer Society developed the selective laser melting process.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) printing process patents expired in 2009.
As technology matured, several authors had begun to speculate that 3D printing could aid in sustainable development in the developing world.
In 2012, Filabot developed a system for closing the loop with plastic and allows for any FDM or FFF 3D printer to be able to print with a wider range of plastics.
In 2014, Benjamin S. Cook and Manos M. Tentzeris demonstrate the first multi-material, vertically integrated printed electronics additive manufacturing platform (VIPRE) which enabled 3D printing of functional electronics operating up to 40 GHz.
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 popular vernacular has started using the term to encompass a wider variety of additive-manufacturing techniques such as electron-beam additive manufacturing and selective laser melting. The United States and global technical standards use the official term additive manufacturing for this broader sense.
The most-commonly used 3D printing process (46% as of 2018) is a material extrusion technique called fused deposition modeling, or FDM. While FDM technology was invented after the other two most popular technologies, stereolithography (SLA) and selective laser sintering (SLS), FDM is typically the most inexpensive of the three by a large margin, which lends to the popularity of the process.
As of 2020, 3D printers have reached the level of quality and price that allows most people to enter the world of 3D printing. In 2020 decent quality printers can be found for less than US$200 for entry level machines. These more affordable printers are usually FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) printers.