The father of 3D printing, Chuck Hull, tells the story of the night he made his world-changing invention, why he failed to retire after becoming a huge commercial success and how homemade guns were disappointing but predictable
Chuck Hull’s wife, Anntionette, can pinpoint the exact minute her husband invented 3D printing, changing their lives and the world forever: 8:39PM on Wednesday, March 9, 1983.
“I was at home, and I happened to look over at the clock when the phone rang,” she said. At that moment she was in her pyjamas, ready for bed, but Chuck was still working: “get dressed, get down to the lab right now” he told her. She jumped in the car and arrived to see the first 3D-printed object in the world.
“He held this part in his hand and he said ‘I did it. The world as we know will never be the same.’ We laughed and we cried and we stayed up all night just imagining.
“I knew on that night that he had achieved something grand and that it would hold meaning, and I hold it dear to my heart.”
While the concept of 3D printing has changed the world, and certainly lives up to the word ‘grand’, the object itself falls far short.
Anntionette produces it from her handbag: a tiny lump of dull black plastic. It’s an unremarkable thing, which you would drop in a bin without a second thought if you found it in the street. An eye-wash cup. Chosen simply because it would be easy to make.
She promises that one day she will donate it to the Smithsonian Institution, but for now she can’t bear to part with it and carries it everywhere.
Prior to this cup, the individual printed layers had always failed to stick together and the results “looked like spaghetti”.
Chuck Hull is an energetic man, despite his 75 years. When he talks about 3D printing his passion is clear, but he’s also humble about his achievements – the morning after we speak, the Colorado-born engineer wins the non-European category at the 2014 European Inventor Award in Berlin, and he takes time in his short acceptance speech to thank the “hundreds and hundreds of scientists and engineers who have helped bring 3D printing to the world as we know it today”.
But without his first machine, perfected at night after his day job, we would have no 3D printers at all.
He was working on UV lamps to harden liquid tabletop coatings when he came up with the idea: if light could be targeted accurately it would be possible to create thin, solid slices in any shape from a pool of liquid, and then stack them to build 3D objects.
“So I talked with the president of the company. He found it was interesting but he didn’t really want to do it as a product so I agreed with him I could study this on my own time, nights and weekends in a laboratory provided by the company. So I did that, probably took several months, I don’t remember how long, trying things that didn’t work, finding out the first apparatus that was able actually to print 3D parts,” he said.
He now owns dozens of patents on vital areas of the technology and runs 3D Systems, one of the world’s largest commercial companies in the field. It makes printers, but also creates objects to order for a huge range of clients including the aerospace industry and Hollywood.
“There are lots of different 3D printing methods now. Our company alone has seven different kinds of 3D printers. But the original apparatus – the stereolithography apparatus – is still commonly used. It has evolved over the years in better materials, more precision, better scanners and so forth. So, now it’s used for very high precision parts so it is also very productive so it’s used in lot of service providers around the world to make plastic parts.”
The company has been a roaring financial success: he explains that it allowed him to buy his own plane, which he regularly flies near his home in the US. But despite this he still works every day.
“After the company was started and was running well, I decided to retire. I think that was in the late 1990’s. And you know, I really didn’t like that. So fortunately the CEO of the company called and asked if I would come back to be the chief technology officer which right away I did. And, I’ve been doing that ever since. I really enjoy it.”
Oswald Schröder, chief spokesperson for the European Patent Office, told me that one of these key patents for Chuck’s type of 3D printing expires in August this year.
“After that you will have a real explosion of 3D printing technologies to the market because they can do it for free. They are not infringing Chuck Hull’s patent,” he said.
But Chuck is unconvinced, and believes that 3D Systems has a headstart on the technology: “There’ll probably be some. I don’t think it’s a major factor. It still takes a lot of good engineers to develop a technology, plus there’s a lot of follow-on patents.
“You’re always inventing new things, you’re developing follow-on patents. Certainly some of the earlier kinds of 3D printing there’s not much patent coverage. It really takes lots of smart engineers working on good engineering teams.”
Refined versions of his machines are now used by large-scale manufacturing plants around the world, as well as by home hobbyists. I ask if he expected his invention to change the world as much as it has. “Not so much,” he says. “The 3D printing market is just continuing to grow rapidly. All expectations are continuing to grow. The consumer thing has just been introduced. It’s all exploding.”
I ask how much further this will continue: will there be one in every home?
“Oh yeah, sure. Prices get better, applications grow.”
Chuck himself still uses a 3D printer at home. He’s a keen photographer, so makes various camera mounts.
“Design ‘em, print ‘em, use ‘em,” he says. “Everyone uses them for their own hobbies. We call it the man cave: whatever you do when you’re not working. 3D printing can help you.”
Almost everything can be made with 3D printing, which does raise some problems, such as the manufacture of guns, something which was “easy to predict” says Chuck, as all technology is eventually used for violence.
“I personally don’t like to see a lot of weaponry. To me, I’d rather have nice friendly products.”