Friday night, March 11, 1983, Chuck Hull sat tinkering with a machine in the makeshift lab built for him at UVP -- at the time, a small ultraviolet application company in San Gabriel, Calif.
The contraption whirling before him was the latest of a series of machines he had built to help settle a hunch that, under the right conditions, the UV lights and materials that UVP used to lay adhesives and coat furniture might be capable of something bigger. Something much bigger.
"I saw the materials the company was using -- really just thin sheets of plastic -- and I thought there might be a way to design something out of it," Hull recalls. "I thought I could use it to design an actual plastic part."
As a former design engineer at DuPont, Hull had experienced the frustrations of the slow, expensive and innovation-killing clunkiness of the prototyping process firsthand -- a fundamental industrywide problem he was determined to solve.
"The president [of UVP] wasn't very interested in developing this area, but I convinced him that he should give me a lab where I could work evenings and weekends to develop the process," Hull remembers. "Which I eventually did."
On that March night 30 years ago, under the glow of focused UV lights, a rough plastic part slowly grew out of a vat of liquid photopolymer at the center of Hull's rudimentary machine. The model that emerged was the world's first product of stereolithography -- what the world would soon dub "rapid prototyping."
The rest, as they say, is history.
From that first success, Hull went on to co-found his own company, 3D Systems, to help bring rapid prototyping and 3-D printing to the world. Thirty years later, that company has grown into a $500 million global corporation and one of the world's biggest players in the booming additive manufacturing industry.
But more importantly, Hull's invention has helped spur innovation, design and ultimately manufacturing in a high-tech age, inspiring a new generation of industrialists in the process.
"My view is that there needs to be a core competency in manufacturing, particularly in the U.S.," Hull says. "Helping that come about, not just with 3-D printing, but a lot of digital manufacturing, and being part of that movement makes me feel pretty good."