HANNOVER, Germany — Where would the world of additive manufacturing be today without Chuck Hull? It would still exist, certainly, in some form or another, but it would look markedly different.
Hull invented stereolithography and founded 3D Systems back in the early 1980s, around the same time Carl Deckard invented selective laser sintering and Scott Crump invented fused deposition modeling. Hull was the first to apply for and ultimately be issued patents, though, the first of which he received in early 1986. Thirty years later, those early patents have entered into the public domain and opened the door for more development than ever.
Hull, who recently celebrated his 77th birthday and his 30th anniversary with 3D Systems, where he now works as the chief technology officer, discussed his thoughts on no longer really owning those first patents during a long conversation on the show floor at Hannover Messe in Germany. He also addressed what might be in store for the additive manufacturing industry and how its history could help it continue moving forward.
He also laughed, a lot. Hull is a champion for additive manufacturing — though that should come as no surprise — and just talking about it puts him in a great mood.
IndustryWeek: Thirty years in now, what’s new with 3D Systems?
Chuck Hull: We’re expanding into some bigger systems, some titanium-based systems, and we just showed that at the St. Louis Additive Manufacturing Users Group Conference. The other thing we’re talking about that’s new is we have a video, a technology demonstration, of a product we haven’t named yet. We’re calling it Figure 4 because it’s derived from our initial Figure 4 patent, and it’s a new development of something I thought of over 30 years ago — new materials, new methods.
IW: Still building on those early patents.
CH: It’s a programmable injection molding machine, it has the same kinds of speeds but you don’t need a mold, you don’t need to design for injection molding, you just need to send it your files and you can start producing parts. ... This kind of printer is anywhere from 20 to 50 times as fast as the currently typical stereolithography system. The other major advantage with the small material supply is that we don’t worry so much about things like vat life. A large, typical stereolithography system, the material sits there and you want it to last a year, two years, three years before it might start to lose its holding ability. With a little, small vat, you’re changing that several times a day. That lets our chemists not worry so much about traditional stability, and we can run more reactive chemistries and we can get more physical properties. We have the combination of new printer materials and high speeds, so our idea now is not to make a traditional printer.
IW: Who might put this to use in manufacturing? Is it designed to appeal and bring in new users?
CH: It really opens the door to anybody who makes plastic parts. This is not a new idea — everybody would like to make plastic parts with 3D-printing — so it’s not like a mystery as to who would use this. Lots of people have talked with us about this, and they’ve talked with every other 3D-printing company. The question is, What do you do about it? Our answer is, You can just gang as many of these together as you need — these are not as expensive as a typical stereolithography system — and then automate that. The automation, with 3D-printing, you sort of get this wet part, and the automation here takes care of that, cleans it up and so from a factory point of view now you’re just taking these parts and where do you go next with them?
IW: The industry is a little different than it was in the early 1980s.
CH: There was no industry. (Laughs) I was developing this in the back room of a little company in San Gabriel, California, and got the first 3D-print to work in 1983, a little top, and then worked on other test parts. It got to the point where we needed a patent application in ’84, and that processed and issued in ’86. So I’m at this little company, saying, OK, we need to commercialize this, and the president says, Great, but we can’t afford that. So I spun out another company, and that was the start of 3D Systems. That was really the first additive manufacturing and 3D-printing. … Of course, all those patents are expiring now.
IW: What’s the emotion there? What’s the feeling, seeing these patents go out for public consumption?
CH: There are lots of thoughts there. For lots and lots of years, we always had to explain what 3D-printing was and why people should care. Then everybody knew what it was, and we went through this hype period. We’re through that hype and now, I think, people have realistic expectations and knowledge about where it is. In terms of patents expiring, that certainly opens it up for a lot of people to work in this field — not just our patents, either. … Every new product, though, has lots of new patents associated with it — to actually advance ideas takes new patents — so there are more patent applications now. I lose track with how many patent applications are in this field now, a few hundred per quarter.
IW: How many do you have?
CH: I have about 85 (patents), I think.
IW: They’ve all helped change and evolve the industry, I imagine.
CH: It’s just a huge field now — not just patent applications, but publications, new products, research going on all around the world with government and universities. I’m supposed to keep track of all this, and I can’t anymore. I just try to find the stuff that we think has growth significance.
They're All My Children
IW: Do you have any favorite applications? Either your own, or others that you’ve seen and been impressed by?
CH: To me, they’re all my children. Which is my favorite? Certainly, we have lots of production applications already, so Align Technology makes orthodontic liners in a completely automated factory. We worked and worked on that with Align and some other partners, so to see that be a thriving business, that’s one of my favorites. Some of my other favorite stuff is in healthcare, lots in surgical planning.
IW: Have you ever seen a surgery where your technology is used?
CH: I have not, but I’ve met some of the people who’ve been rebuilt, successfully.
IW: What could be in store for additive manufacturing, heck, not even in 2046, but just in, say, 2018?
CH: I always say, first disclaimer, I’m not much of a futurist. But certainly, the benefits are no tooling, customizable fasts, and so a lot of plastic parts will be automated and built with 3D-printing. It’s another step toward digital manufacturing, and it fits right into the whole movement. In the future, people won’t even think about it. It’ll be the recognized way to manufacture plastic parts. The same with metal parts, except right now the provision is that those tend to be more specialized parts. Maybe they’ll advance to the same level.
The trend we’re on right now is more aerospace parts and medical parts, and of course the benefits in aerospace are that you can get what you want and you can build things in ways where you get the same performance but with a lot less weight. You take out all the metal that doesn’t do anything and you can save at least half the weight, if not more. I could just see that really progressing. … There are still barriers. Right now, we’re going through all the regulatory stuff, us and others. It’s going well. I can see that happening. In medical, certainly, I think it’s progressed to the point where more and more medical implants are used, and we have a facility in Belgium that’s made a couple hundred thousand implants. That seems to be going well. The advantage, of course, is that they’re customizable, and you can make them better. You can make them cheaper and better with additive, and the functionality is a lot better.
IW: At trade shows, I imagine you talk quite often with people, smart people who know the industry but have no idea who you are, or exactly what you’ve done.
CH: It’s just part of life.
IW: It’s sort of like being Batman, but walking around as Bruce Wayne. Nobody knows.
CH: (Laughs) A lot of these companies are in a position where they’re not thinking about the history, they’re thinking about new products, so they’re not going to recognize people.
IW: What are you looking forward to in the next 6, 12, 18 months?
CH: The things I’m more in tune with are the actual deployment of this kind of technology. Manufacturing itself is rapidly changing, so when we’re talking about deployment, we’re not talking about some ancient assembly line. The people we talk with are already fully into digital manufacturing. I’m looking to working out all those processes, making sure that additive manufacturing fits their thinking, so that we can get on the same page — and not just 3D Systems, but all additive companies.
IW: Is there ever a point where you say, All right, I’ve done enough and now it’s time to go sit on a beach?
CH: Yeah, I did that once. It was really boring.
IW: When was that?
CH: The end of the 1990s. I actually retired. We had gotten a new CEO and new management, and about three months later, the new CEO called up and said, Chuck, this isn’t going well. Can you come back and run some of our technical problems? Be our chief technology officer? Been doing that ever since. It’s obviously just continuing to do interesting stuff, and my nature is to try to stay ahead of the pack.
IW: You keep active, you work around 20somethings, 30somethings, and their energy rubs off, you feel younger. Who knows, maybe you’ll be CTO until 2076. You never know with advancements in healthcare — some of which you’ve contributed to.
CH: That’s true, and I do get to work on a lot of advanced projects, but I’ve never had any vision that it will help me. But for mankind, 10, 20 years out, the health stuff is coming, and it’s unbelievable.