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Meet Charles Hull, Inventor of Stereolithography
Who is Charles Hull?
It can be easy to romanticize inventors as brilliant recluses holed up in a cabin in the woods or elaborately lit mansion somewhere. However, the reality is that most great ideas come from very reasonable places, from sharp minds working in the same industries as many of us. Charles (Chuck) Hull is perhaps no exception, though his work is exceptional.
Born on May 12, 1939 in Clifton, Colorado, Hull is most notably the co-founder and executive vice president of 3D Systems, a company that designs, manufactures, and sells 3D printers. But it doesn’t stop there. Hull is actually the inventor of stereolithography, better known as 3D printing.
Though we may think of 3D printing as a relatively recent invention, Hull came up with the idea in 1983 while he was using UV light to harden coatings on a tabletop, patenting the idea in 1986. He described the process, which he coined stereolithography, as “a method and apparatus for making solid objects by successively printing thin layers of the ultraviolet curable material one on top of the other.” The idea stems from a general frustration with slow production times for small new product designs, and, as for many inventors, came on the heels of hours spent in an empty lab after hours.
Expanding additive manufacturing technologies
The patent outlines a process in which ultraviolet light is beamed onto the surface of a container filled with liquid photopolymer. Under the control of a computer, the beam draws each layer on the surface of the liquid, causing the photopolymer to polymerize and turn to a solid. Using CAD software like Autodesk’s Fusion 360, a computer model is divided into thin layers to be printed one at a time, solidifying the object as the process builds. Hull’s first 3D print job? A simple black eye-wash cup.
Just a few years after the patent was filed, Hull opened 3D Systems in Valencia, California and expanded his patents to include non-liquids and further commercialize the process. He received funding from a Canadian investor and produced a commercial product that demonstrated the technology’s viability. Car manufacturers, medical facilities, and aerospace companies were immediately interested. Since then, Hull has continued to expand and develop additive manufacturing technologies across the industry. In 2014, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his achievements.
Despite his success, Hull remains humble. In an article for The Guardian, he describes learning that 3D printing played a role in the successful separation of conjoined twins. “This is extremely difficult for surgeons, to figure out how they are going to separate the two twins so that you will have two separately living people. When some of those surgeries were first done using the help of our technology, it was really touching for me,” he said.
Hull, now of retirement age, is still working as the chief technology officer at 3D Systems. With software like Autodesk’s Fusion 360, discover all of the right tools you need to innovate for yourself.