Charles W. Hull is the Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of 3D Systems. Chuck is the inventor of the solid imaging process known as stereolithography, the first commercial 3D printing technology. With the founding of 3D Systems in 1986, he initiated the 3D printing industry and continues to lead it today with cutting edge innovations ranging from state-of-the-art production 3D printers that have changed the game in manufacturing to the first home-certified 3D printer, the award winning Cube®. He is a named inventor on 85 United States patents, plus numerous other patents around the world in the fields of ion optics and 3D printing. In 2014, Mr. Hull was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame at the United States Patent and Trademark Office for his globally impactful and transformative work inventing and pioneering 3D printing. The same year, Chuck was the recipient of the European Patent Office’s prestigious European Inventor Award in the non-European countries category for his contributions to technological progress and the advancement of society. He also received The Economist’s prestigious 2013 Innovation Award, recognizing significant contributions across the fields of science and technology. Prior to founding 3D Systems, Mr. Hull served six years as vice president of engineering at UVP, Inc. in San Gabriel, California, a systems manufacturing company. Before that, he spent 10 years as an engineering manager at DuPont’s Photo Products Division, concentrating on the development of analytical equipment for chemists, including mass spectrometer and GC/MS systems. Earlier in his career he was a senior engineer at Bell & Howell. Mr. Hull received a BS in engineering physics from the University of Colorado in 1961 and an honorary Doctorate in Engineering from Loughborough University in the U.K. in 2005.
3D Systems provides the most advanced and comprehensive 3D digital design and fabrication solutions available today, including 3D printers, print materials and cloud-sourced custom parts. Its powerful ecosystem transforms entire industries by empowering professionals and consumers everywhere to bring their ideas to life using its vast material selection, including plastics, metals, ceramics and edibles. 3DS’ leading personalized medicine capabilities include end-to-end simulation, training and planning, and printing of surgical instruments and devices for personalized surgery and patient specific medical and dental devices. Its democratized 3D digital design, fabrication and inspection products provide seamless interoperability and incorporate the latest immersive computing technologies. 3DS’ products and services disrupt traditional methods, deliver improved results and empower its customers to manufacture the future now.
If you’re involved in STEM learning, as a student or an educator, there’s a good chance that you’ve come across 3D printing before. More and more institutions of learning are integrating 3D design and fabrication tools into academic and extracurricular programs and teaching the digital literacy that students need to thrive in the 3D era—and that’s a great thing because few other technologies have the potential to reshape our workplaces, our industries and our economies like 3D printing.
3D printing is often seen as the catalyst for the third industrial revolution. The ability to make functional prototypes and complex end-use parts from digital files—in house, on demand and entirely fit for purpose—is disrupting supply chains, manufacturing workflows and business models the world over. This technology is democratizing and re-localizing the power to conceive, construct and create, breaking down the barriers to manufacturing that have existed since the rise of the modern factory.
3D printing is even taking root and transforming industries outside of traditional manufacturing applications. For example, it is powering the latest breakthroughs in personalized medicine, allowing doctors to plan, practice, instrument and perform surgeries from patient-specific data. It is even entering the kitchen, opening up creative and delicious opportunities in food and beverage preparation that were simply unimaginable up until now.
When you add all these amazing developments together, it does indeed begin to resemble a revolution. But as the inventor of the first commercial 3D printing technology I can tell you, it certainly didn’t start that way. It started like most innovations do: with a stubborn and restless engineer (me, in this case) just trying to solve a problem.
The problem was prototyping plastic parts. This was the early 1980s and, in those days, it took six to eight weeks from when you had a finished design—either on a computer or, more typically, as a set of blueprints—to when you actually had the first prototype. This was because the design had to go first to a tool designer, then to a toolmaker and then to a molder. The molder would mold the first parts and send them back to you to test. And usually those tests failed—designs were rarely correct on the first attempt—so you’d modify the design and start over. This was a very tedious process and slowed the whole product design and introduction cycle greatly.
I thought there might be a better way. At the time, I was working for an ultraviolet technology company. One of the things the company made was high-intensity UV lights which cured materials used for furniture coatings, floor coatings and other finishes. I imagined that these tiny layers of UV-cured material were ultrathin sheets of plastic, and I wondered if there was some process to stack up and bond cured layers to make prototype plastic parts. That would speed up the design cycle for new parts substantially, I thought.
I brought the idea to the company president because I felt we could develop a market for these capabilities. He wasn’t very interested in the idea, but said, “You can work on this, but do it nights and weekends. You can use one of the labs in the company.” So my day job was running the company’s engineering department. My night job was inventing 3D printing.
Creating this technology became my passion. It was a multidisciplinary exercise that put all of my scientific background and technical training to the test. It included materials science, mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, along with some optics and a lot of software. I tried many approaches and failed more times than I can count. Then, finally, I got onto a viable path. That led to the first printed part in 1983, and the subsequent creation of the first 3D printer. I received the first patent in 1986 and, together with a business partner, launched 3D Systems the same year. The rest, as they say, is history.
I share the story of my personal journey with you because it contains an important economic truth: innovation is neither easy nor intuitive. And it rarely, if ever, happens by chance. To create something truly innovative, one must have the scrutiny of a Scientist, the vision of a Technophile, the ingenuity of an Engineer and the logic of a Mathematician. I recognize and can isolate these traits because they are the ones I look for when I hire new teammates at 3D Systems to help deliver the next generation of innovative products and services. Unfortunately, there is a critical shortage of qualified candidates with these characteristics in the labor market today.
And that’s where STEM learning comes in. If we want our companies—and by aggregate, our country—to remain competitive over the long run, we will need to provide future innovators with the necessary skills in science, technology, engineering and math. And that’s not just a matter for the schools; we all play a part. At 3D Systems, we’re working hand-in-hand with schools, libraries and museums to provide the next generation with access to the means and skills to excel in the world of digital manufacturing. Our goal is to empower them to take on today’s challenges with passion and confidence (and just the right amount of stubbornness), because that’s how they will create the jobs, businesses and industries of tomorrow. Who knows, they might even start the fourth industrial revolution!