The general concept of and procedure to be used in 3D-printing was first 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.

In 1974, David E. H. Jones laid out the concept of 3D printing in his regular column Ariadne in the journal New Scientist.

In April 1980, Hideo Kodama of Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute invented two additive methods for fabricating three-dimensional plastic models with photo-hardening thermoset polymer, where the UV exposure area is controlled by a mask pattern or a scanning fiber transmitter.

Hideo Kodama filed a patent for this XYZ plotter, which was published on November 10, 1981. (JP S56-144478).

In early 1984, Robert Howard started R.H. Research, later named Howtek, Inc to develop a color 2D printer using Thermoplastic (hot-melt) plastic ink.

Three weeks later in 1984, Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corporation filed his own patent for a stereolithography fabrication system, in which layers are added by curing photopolymers with ultraviolet light lasers. Hull defined the process as a "system for generating three-dimensional objects by creating a cross-sectional pattern of the object to be formed".

On July 2, 1984, American entrepreneur Bill Masters filed a patent for his Computer Automated Manufacturing Process and System (US 4665492).

On 16 July 1984, Alain Le Méhauté, Olivier de Witte, and Jean Claude André filed their patent for the stereolithography process. The application of the French inventors was abandoned by the French General Electric Company (now Alcatel-Alsthom) and CILAS (The Laser Consortium).

In 1986, Charles "Chuck" Hull was granted a patent for his system, and his company, 3D Systems Corporation released the first commercial 3D printer, the SLA-1.

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.

As the various additive processes matured, it became clear that soon metal removal would no longer be the only metalworking process done through a tool or head moving through a 3D work envelope, transforming a mass of raw material into a desired shape layer by layer. The 2010s were the first decade in which metal end-use parts such as engine brackets and large nuts would be grown (either before or instead of machining) in job production rather than obligately being machined from bar stock or plate. It is still the case that casting, fabrication, stamping, and machining are more prevalent than additive manufacturing in metalworking, but AM is now beginning to make significant inroads, and with the advantages of design for additive manufacturing, it is clear to engineers that much more is to come.

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 early 2014, Swedish supercar manufacturer Koenigsegg announced the One:1, a supercar that utilizes many components that were 3D printed. Urbee is the name of the first car in the world car mounted using the technology 3D printing (its bodywork and car windows were "printed").

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.

In 2014, Local Motors debuted Strati, a functioning vehicle that was entirely 3D Printed using ABS plastic and carbon fiber, except the powertrain.

In May 2015, Airbus announced that its new Airbus A350 XWB included over 1000 components manufactured by 3D printing.

In 2017, GE Aviation revealed that it had used design for additive manufacturing to create a helicopter engine with 16 parts instead of 900, with great potential impact on reducing the complexity of supply chains.