Charles Hull is the inventor of stereolithography, the first commercial rapid prototyping technology commonly known as 3D printing. The earliest applications of 3D printing were in research and development labs and tool rooms, but today 3D printing applications are seemingly endless. The technology has been used to create anything from sports shoes, aircraft components, and artificial limbs to artwork, musical instruments, and clothing.
Hull was developing lamps for UV-curable resins when he first came up with his idea for 3D printing. His method uses UV light to cure and bond a photopolymer resin which is built up layer by layer. In 1986, Hull co-founded 3D Systems to commercialize his technology, including the STL file format that allows CAD software data to be translated for 3D printers. Today, 3D Systems continues to innovate with a full line of professional and production 3D printers, advanced software solutions, and a broad materials portfolio, as well as consumer-friendly desktop 3D printers for the growing hobby and entrepreneur markets.
Hull, who received his degree in engineering physics from the University of Colorado, is also the recipient of The Economist’s Innovation Award for his pioneering role in 3D printing technology.
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Charles Hull was born and grew up in rural western Colorado. He moved to California in 1961, after he graduated from the University of Colorado, where he received a B.S. in Engineering Physics.
At the beginning of his career, Hull was an engineer at Bell & Howell and he later worked as an engineering manager at Dupont’s Photo Products Division, where he developed analytical equipment for chemists. It was while working at UVP Inc., then a small manufacturer of UV products, that Hull developed the idea that led to 3D printing.
As a design engineer at UVP, Hull experienced the obstacles of building prototypes to get testable plastic parts. The process was very costly and time consuming. A part designed and blueprinted would not be physically prototyped until weeks or months later, at which time he and other engineers would often find out that the part would have to be redesigned repeatedly before testing. Hull decided he had the solution to this problem. While working at UVP, he made a deal with his manager: he would continue working toward the company’s main goals and products by day and would work after hours on his idea to develop a machine to speed up the prototyping process.
UVP produced UV lamps for the photopolymers that solidified when exposed to UV light that were used to provide tough coatings on furniture, and Hull began experimenting with these materials. A thin layer of the photopolymer resin would solidify when exposed by a UV laser. Hull realized that thousands of these thin layers would stack to create three-dimensional objects. The printer operated using special instructions that sliced the object into those thin layers as described by a special CAD/CAM file. Hull printed his first object, a small cup, on March 9, 1983, and immediately shared his accomplishment with his wife Anntionette. He called the method stereolithography and received his first patent on the process in 1986, the year he co-founded 3D Systems.
Hull didn’t expect his invention to immediately become “mainstream.” He knew it would take time for 3D printing to be recognized commercially and to be perfected. 3D Systems was the first company to commercialize 3D printing. This was used for rapid prototyping by combining 3D printing with computer-aided-design (CAD) software, enabled by the STL format – a now commonly used file format for 3D printing, also co-developed by Hull.
At first, selling the idea to manufacturers was not easy. Because it was initially impossible to carry the printer around the country for demonstrations when meeting with potential clients, Hull and his colleagues made home videos to demonstrate the 3D printing process. Among the first industries interested were automotive manufacturers, but it did not take long until manufacturers in other industries found that they too could use 3D printing to make their processes more efficient.
Today, 3D printing is much more than a tool that speeds up model and prototyping in manufacturing. It also allows for customization and is frequently used to build consumer products and parts. Additionally, professionals in a variety of fields recognize the potential and utility of 3D printing, creating artificial limbs, medical devices, artwork, aircraft components, and clothing. Professionals in the culinary arts, forensics, architecture, archeology, and more, are also applying 3D printing in their fields.
Hull currently lives in Canyon Country, California, with his wife Anntionette. They have two children and two grandchildren. He holds more than 60 United States patents, as well as other patents around the world. After founding 3D Systems, Hull served as the company’s Chief Operating Officer and President from 1986 to 1999. Though Hull took a brief sabbatical in 1999, he continued to serve as 3D Systems’ vice chairman, a member of the Board of Directors and a consultant to the company. Hull has been 3D Systems’ Chief Technology Officer since 1997 and Executive Vice President since May 2000.
B.S. Engineering Physics, University of Colorado, 1961. He also received an honorary Doctorate degree in engineering from Loughborough University, United Kingdom, 2005.
Did you know?
Hull has been an active private pilot since 1973. He is an avid amateur photographer and videographer.
Best known for:
Hull is the inventor of 3D printing, also known as stereolithography. His creation was the first commercially available rapid prototyping technology. 3D printing allows for prototypes, industrial design components, fashion and lifestyle accessories, and even medical devices to be created for use or review in a matter of hours.
“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” – As quoted in Industry Week.
Numerical Controls Society, Jacquard Award – 1994
The Rank Prize, the Rank Foundation, London – 1995
American Society of Mechanical Engineers, William T. Ennor Manufacturing Technology Award – 1996
Greater Los Angeles Area Ernst & Young, Entrepreneur of the Year Institute – 1996
Society of Manufacturing Engineers, Albert M. Sargent Progress Award – 1997
The Carolinas Area Ernst & Young, Entrepreneur of the Year Institute, with Avi Reichental – 2011
The George R. Stibitz Computer and Communications Award – 2013
Industry Week Manufacturing Hall of Fame, Class of 2013
Economist’s Innovation Award – 2013
Occupation: Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer of 3D Systems
Born: May 12, 1939, in Clifton, Colorado