Chuck Hull Discusses Rapid Evolution of Additive Manufacturing

For most of 1983, Chuck Hull (now dubbed the “Father of 3-D Printing”) could be found laboring nights and weekends alone in a lab, with one goal: to accelerate prototyping from a month-long process into one that could be completed in a matter of hours. He says at that time his “interest in developing 3-D printing was driven by curiosity and practicality.”

It took almost a year, but those long nights finally paid off. When all was said and done, Hull had invented stereolithography, a process for creating three-dimensional objects, in which a computer-controlled laser beam is used to shape liquid polymers into three-dimensional objects as the polymers harden on contact with the lasers.

As the story goes, he called his wife down to the lab to see the first piece he was able to create using this new process, and she still has it today.

Though he dedicated months to the development of this technique, Hull says, “I never knew how great of an impact 3-D printing would have beyond my original intentions. Now, more than 30 years later, I’m still surprised by its reach and the innovation it’s enabling in areas such as aerospace and healthcare.”

“When 3-D printing first came on the scene, it was adopted by the automotive industry to help accelerate the design process and get products to market faster,” Hull continues. “Automakers are still key users of 3-D printing technology, but they are now joined by innovators in the aerospace and defense sectors, healthcare, durable goods, and even entertainment. As the technology continues to advance, we are now seeing a significant shift from rapid prototyping to customers using 3-D printers for end-use part production.”

Its uses are turning out to be almost limitless, especially in manufacturing healthcare devices and materials.

3-D printing eventually could break the trend of rising healthcare costs because it involves additive manufacturing as opposed to older techniques that involved the removal of materials by cutting, drilling, etc. The extraction of those materials can be costly and involves much more waste. 3-D printing eliminates these costly factors by using only what is needed for each product.

“3-D printing invites so much innovation that it’s difficult to be excited about just one application or industry segment,” Hull says. “With that being said, I have been most surprised by the advances it has enabled in healthcare. It is deeply gratifying to witness the real human impact this technology has on improving how we live every day, and in some cases, even saving lives.”

Applications in the healthcare industry are changing the way we approach healthcare solutions each day. Among other applications, researchers and experts are using 3-D printing to develop skin for burn victims, ankle replacements, and casts. More importantly, they’re discovering opportunities for personalization in the healthcare industry.

Just last year, researchers discovered it was possible to print patient-specific, biodegradable implants to more effectively cure bone infections and bone cancer. It also has surprising uses in the pharmaceutical industry—3-D printing can be used to create pills in various shapes (such as pyramids and cylinders). Since different shapes offer different release rates, medicine can be customized based on each patient’s needs. 

I have been most surprised by the advances it has enabled in healthcare. It is deeply gratifying to witness the real human impact this technology has on improving how we live every day, and in some cases, even saving lives.

There’s still more to be done in this rapidly growing field.

So far, Hull is impressed with the advancements that have been made in the industry. 3-D printing has had a much farther reach than he ever could have imagined, and that has taught him an important lesson in taking a leap of faith.

When it comes to commercializing technologies, Hull encourages inventors to “see it through.” He says, “Your ideas are powerful and worth nurturing. You may be surprised where they take you.”

Awards and Recognition

For his contributions to the field, Hull was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

“It was an incredible honor,” he says. “It’s the kind of thing you don’t anticipate, and I am humbled by the distinction.”

Just this year, Hull was awarded with the Inaugural Pioneer in Additive Manufacturing Award on October 11 at the National Forum on Additive Manufacturing Education & Training at the Penn Stater in State College, PA. This event was hosted by Penn State’s Center for Innovative Materials Processing through Direct Digital Deposition (CIMP-3D).

He was honored to receive the award and glad to be a part of the event.

“Events like these offer a wonderful opportunity to engage with talented, probing minds and to leave with more inspiration than you arrived with,” he says.

Hull offers one last piece of advice for others in the industry: “The frontier of additive manufacturing is still a wild one. With that in mind, remember that facing your challenges doesn’t mean accepting them.”