Transforming Light into Matter

Category: In Focus
Trained as an electrical engineer, Charles Hull’s actual job involved molding small, plastic parts and developing prototypes. He worked with UV light to toughen surface coatings. In 1983, he had the idea to stack the synthetic resin used for the coatings into thin, laminate layers and use UV light to sear the layers into a form – a consequential stroke of genius: The basic principle of 3D printing was born. 

Hull probably never imagined that his idea would set off an avalanche that is still in motion. With his discovery, Charles Hull has done nothing less than re-invent industrial manufacturing – just like Henry Ford did over 100 years ago. 

British journalist and book author Peter Marsh has already declared the “fifth industrial revolution.” For this achievement, the European Patent Office (EPO) has nominated the 74-year-old American for this year’s European Inventor Award in the category “Non-European Countries.” Europe’s technology Oscars will be awarded on 17 June in Berlin, Germany.

An Idea Takes Shape

“With the invention of the 3D printer, Charles Hull has ushered in a new era in industrial production, comparable in significance only with the assembly line introduced by Henry Ford. 3D printing is exemplary for the way in which revolutionary processes can impact on R&D laboratories and work benches alike, opening up unimagined opportunities for the economy.

In that respect, too, Charles Hull’s invention will be seen and understood as historic by future generations,” EPO President Benoît Battistelli said.

Working for his former employer, Ultraviolet Products (UVP), Charles (“Chuck”) Hull usually spent weeks molding and casting small plastic components, which were then put together to form a prototype. The process was time-consuming and slowed development considerably. But these parts were essential for testing the viability of new product designs. 

UV lights, which were omnipresent at UVP, were ultimately what gave Hull his stroke of genius. Instead of using the light to harden individual thin layers of photo-sensitive polymers, Hull stacked thousands of these ultra-thin plastic layers. This made it possible to create 3D objects in just about every conceivable design. 

Today, the basic principle of 3D printing remains the same, even though various different procedures have since emerged.

Hands-on Inventor

Charles Hull already had his revolutionary idea patented in 1983 and transferred the

proprietary rights to his employer. On shaky ground financially, the company could not afford to invest in the further development and marketing of the invention. Hull took initiative once again, founded his own company, and licensed the technology from UVP. 3D Systems took off and still remains the market leader in the 3D printing industry. It supplies custom components or entire printers including the company’s own software. 

Hull is named on over 200 patent applications around the world, including 18 granted European patents. Despite his 74 years, Hull is not thinking about stopping: “My job is just too interesting and exciting to retire,” says the executive vice president and chief technology officer of 3D Systems.

A Man Shapes an Era

At first, major corporations were the major beneficiaries of the invention. This was due to the high procurement costs for the equipment. However, the investment paid off quickly, especially in the automotive industry, since it shaved off months from the prototype development process. From high-performance engines for Formula 1 or simple levers and buttons in family cars – all these components initially came from a 3D printer. 

Meanwhile, the number of application areas has increased considerably. In medical technology, for example, it is possible to reproduce patients’ jaw and facial structures; even individual organs can already be reconstructed using this method. Intelligent crash test dummies, plane wings, architectural models, toys, electric bikes and numerous finished products as well as functional prototypes can now be manufactured and realized more quickly and economically than ever before. Plus, the 3D printing landscape is continuously making new strides and discovering new applications each day. 

“I can’t look into the future. I don’t have a crystal ball to tell me what will happen, but I do know one thing: when you have enough smart people working on something, it will just get better,” says the inventor, summing up his own experience.

With his recent induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHOF) in the United

States, Charles Hull has joined the ranks of figures such as Henry Ford and Steve Jobs. In other words: people who have made a lasting impact on humanity.



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