An Overview of the History of 3D Pens

3D drawing pens are a relatively new tool for makers, designers, artists, and hobbyists.  The number of companies producing 3D pens has absolutely skyrocketed in the nearly three years since they were first introduced.   This article provides a background of 3D printing pens and innovative features found on best rated 3D pens today.


Origin of the 3D Pen Revolution

Modern 3D drawing pens have been brought to a reality with the 2013 introduction of the WobbleWorks 3Doodler drawing pen. However, the idea of a hand-held 3D drawing pen has been around for while before then. The 1995 Stratasys patent, “Apparatus and method for creating three-dimensional objects,” made reference to the concept that both glue guns and wax-modeling guns can be used for creating 3D objects by dispensing heated fluids that solidify after being dispensed. The patent notes that these tools can be used for drawing in three dimensions but that the mechanical control in a 3D printer would be able to make vastly superior shapes than by hand.

The Matt wax modeling gun that was referenced in the patent is shaped much like a standard glue gun but is made for dispensing wax.

The gun melts a pellet of wax with an internal heater and extrudes it out of a nozzle. When the extruded wax is cooled with a fan or in water, it keeps its shape and can create intricate 3D shapes. Although these wax guns are not particularly well-known, they are used for creating wax models that can be cast into jewelry.  Wax guns provided the basis for the functionality for the concept of what a 3D drawing pen might be, but are not capable of making what modern 3D printing pens can.

Wax guns could create small 3D objects for niche jewelry making markets, but a device for the everyday user that could draw objects by extruding plastic in the air was not practical until the 3Doodler. The 3Doodler pen uses thermoplastics such as ABS and PLA, which melt into a liquid and solidify after extrusion.  Thermoplastics are the perfect material to extrude from a 3D pen.  When extruded in thin strings, thermoplastics will cool quickly in the air. These plastics also have sufficient strength to create self-standing structures far more complex than glue guns or wax guns were capable of.


Who Started the 3D Pen Revolution?

3Doodler penThe idea for the 3Doodler 3D printing pen was hatched by two inventors, Maxwell Bogue and Peter Dilworth, out of the frustration of waiting 14 hours for a 3D printing job to finish and then realizing a line had been skipped. Within a year after developing the concept, they launched the WobbleWorks 3Doodler pen campaign on Kickstarter, and raised $2.3 million from a $30,000 goal. When this huge demand for 3D printing pens was made public, numerous other companies soon followed with their own versions of the a 3D pen.

Since the first introduction of the WobbleWorks 3Doodler, the quantity of 3D printing pen companies has exploded. A few of these company are: CCbetter, Dim3W, Genesis, iEgrow, Joyluxy, Lay3r, LIX, Samto, Scribbler, Sunlu, YAYA, and 7Tech. All these companies provide mostly standard features but try to tweak some of the downsides of other products in an attempt to capture the market of 3D pen enthusiasts. Most innovations on 3D pens focus mainly on usability and experience, but there are some companies that are attempting to provide new experiences that bring 3D printing pens to a whole new level. Some of the standard features on nearly all 3D drawing pens are:

  • Temperature indication
  • Adjustable temperature (for selecting between PLA and ABS)
  • Extrusion speed control
  • Filament change buttons.

Innovative Features of 3D Pens

In addition to these standard design features, innovative features that are of particular importance for 3D printing pen to be successful are listed below.

Reliability and Ease of Cleaning

Although it may not seem particularly innovative, the best rated pens must have a high degree of reliability and ease of clearing any filament jam. Printing with a 3D pen by hand introduces a huge amount of variability and lends to jams. 3D Pen designs that are well thought out are heavily tested and will provide reliable use and save hours of time during the pen’s lifetime from being able to clean filament jams quickly.

Speed

The speed of extrusion is a feature that greatly enhances the user experience of a 3D printing pen. The speed of the extrusion depends on the components of the pen, with higher quality pens being able to extrude at rates far higher than others. A 3D printing pen with fast extrusion rates saves users time and provide an enhanced 3D printing experience.

Ergonomics

The ergonomics of 3D drawing pen is a feature that many 3D drawing pen companies attempt to capitalize on. Most designs today have a relatively similar shape with a large, cylindrical shaped body that is contoured to fit the thumb and forefinger of a hand. However, one company, LIX, produces a compact 3D pen that is the smallest currently available. Large or small, the choice between ergonomics or size is in the hand of the holder.

Filament type

One innovation in 3D printing pens that takes them to a whole new level is using a UV light curing polymer as an extrusion material (Polyes, Creopop). These pens use a liquid cartridge that is extruded at room temperatures and hardened with UV LEDs that are placed at the extrusion end of the 3D pen. These pens provide a benefit in that there is no heat required, so no chance of burns and no warm up time. UV-light curing pens are available with multiple colors, much like plastics, and can even be used to draw on bare skin. Additionally, the UV light can cure the extruded materials at a much higher rate than thermoplastics, since they are hardened almost instantly. However, a downside of these pens is that they require proprietary, UV-curing resins, which tends to be more expensive than standard ABS or PLA filament.


Conclusion

In summary, the 3D printing pen market has gone from one company to dozens in the last three years. 3Doodler lead the way, and realizing the market for 3D pens, other companies soon joined in. Reliability, Speed, and Ergonomics are three of the major innovations that successful 3D printing pens need to have today. Specialty resins, such as UV light curing, may provide for faster and safer 3D drawing pens, but proprietary liquids may limit their use.

We also did a similar timeline of the history of 3D printers. Make sure to check that out as well!