At 74, having invented a new booming manufacturing industry, building up one of the biggest additive manufacturing companies in the world from scratch and earning himself a spot in the 2013 IW Manufacturing Hall of Fame, Charles "Chuck" Hull has more than earned a restful retirement.
But he just can't seem to give it up.
He works today as the executive vice president and chief technology officer of his company, 3D Systems, still tinkering in the lab and fighting out new innovations and new applications for his signature 3-D printing technology.
"I'm old enough that I should have retired long ago," he told me recently. "But it's such an interesting field that you need to be constantly involved. I want to help make it happen."
Last month, I was able to drag him from his lab for a few minutes to discuss his work, his vision and the impact it has had on the world.
Q: As the story goes, you invented the first 3-D printing technology — stereolithography — in backroom lab at a UVP back in 1983. And now, after 30 years of work and development, the whole additive manufacturing market has suddenly blown up and people think it's brand new. What do you think about this boom? Is it overdue?
When we first started 3-D printing all those years ago, I didn't expect it to become mainstream for a long time. At the time, I said 25 years, but I thought it would take even longer.
That's the history of all inventions. People don't invent things of this ilk and then all of a sudden people are beating on your door and everybody does it. It takes a long time to recognize what it is and it takes a long time to perfect the craft.
3-D printing isn't easy. You see a machine, you think it's straightforward and easy, but it's not. It takes a long time to figure out technically. Really, we were perfecting the craft for the first 10 years at 3D Systems, taking it from an idea to substance to something that was good even at the industrial level.
But then these last couple of years have sort of surprised me. I've been immersed in the struggle of this for all these years and suddenly to have people like IndustryWeek recognize this as more mainstream or more common is definitely a surprise.
The Origin Story
Q: Could you describe where the idea began? How do you invent 3-D printing — in a form as technical and complicated as stereolithography — out of nothing?
My history had been design engineer. In that field, whenever we got into designing new injection molded plastic parts, it was a very time consuming and expensive process.
The process then was, you design the part, then do blueprints of the part, discuss it with a toolmaker who would make the mold for the plastic part. Then that mold would go to a molder who would inject that first part. At least six weeks later, maybe eight weeks, you would see your first part.
That took a long time, but kind than that, the part would never be quite right, so you'd have to redesign, do some changes to the tooling and cycle it again.
So it would be months and months just developing a first article that you could test.
That was the way the world was back then and everybody struggled with that.
My goal was to see if I could come up with a way to get that first article quicker so you could do the iterations quickly and then finally tool for production.
So, I basically invented all of the ideas that wouldn't work and then finally got on to what was ultimately sterolithography. And on March 9, 1983, I made the first part that way.
Q: And from there, I know, you got you worked out a patent in 1986 and co-founded 3D Systems later that year. But who were your clients back then? Was there any industry that saw the potential that early?
Once we started the company, we kind of put our feelers out to see if there was interest out there. And there was. Actually, there was a huge interest in prototyping, mainly from the automotive segment.
The automotive companies at the time were trying to turn out new cars, high quality cars. And at the time U.S. auto companies were not being very responsive. They couldn't quickly turn out new designs and the new designs that they did turn out weren't world-competitive.
So there was a lot of interest in any kind of technology that would help improve that. And that got us our start right away doing products and developing technology for automobiles. Shortly after that lots of other manufacturers jumped into that for the same thing.
Also, in those early years we developed methods to prototype metal parts and to do short run production on metal parts. The method there was to come up with an alternate pattern method for investment casting, which is the traditional lost-wax casting method. That was probably the first major deviation from prototyping plastic parts.
That became very successful. Lots of companies, lots of foundries were having the same problems getting to first article quickly enough.
And so we developed this method and we called it 'Quick Cast' to quickly cast a metal part for a large variety of metal alloys. It's still used today. It's a major application in aerospace and related industries.
The Future of 3-D Printing
Q: So now that it's taken off and manufacturers and consumers are starting to realize the full value of 3-D printing, where does it go next? Will it ever really compete with traditional manufacturing?
I'm not a futurist. I don't have a crystal ball that tells me what things are going to happen, but I know this: when you get enough smart people working on something, it always gets better.
Printing pistons for engines, for example? That may or may not happen. Right now, there are perfectly good ways to make a lot of components without the help of 3-D printing.
With 3-D printing, the real strengths so far are complexity and customization. If you have a manufacturing process where you need a lot of detail or a lot of differentiation between parts, that's where 3-D printing can play.
That's why medical applications are a natural fit in 3-D printing because all bodies are different. When you try to manufacturing something for teeth, for example, they all have to be different for each patient. The same for knees and joints.
So if you're looking at the future, you're going to see more in that area—manufacturing with complex shapes, complex patterns, even in high volume production.
That said, the speed and the cost effectiveness of 3-D printing are constantly moving. Over time, you compete better and better with traditional manufacturing.
Q: Looking back from this 30-year milestone, what would you say is your biggest accomplishment—besides the technology itself?
Back in the 80s and 90s, there was this whole attitude that manufacturing was all going to be done offshore. This was the attitude not only the U.S., but all over the word. Everything was moving to low-labor-cost countries.
I have never thought this was a good thing. My view is that manufacturing should be a core capability for a country, particularly in the U.S.
That attitude is coming back to our country today and European countries — there needs to be a core competency in manufacturing. And today that has come to mean a higher technology capability.
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.