SCV’s Charles Hull, inventor of 3D printer, revolutionizes technology  

Charles Hull, left, stands with Nathan Shyam, right, in front of Hulls' company, 3D Systems in Valencia. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal
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At the edge of Valencia lies a little piece of history: not just a piece of the first 3D printer ever made, but the first-ever 3D printing company in the world— 3D Systems, co-founded by Charles Hull.  

On Oct. 10, 1983, Hull called his wife, Anntionette, to drive to the San Gabriel UVP Inc. engineering lab, where they both worked at the time. That night, Hull and Anntionette knew that history was made — he had built the first-ever 3D printer. 

“I opened the door to the engineering department and Charles said, ‘The world as we know it will never be the same. I printed my first part.’ That night, I fell to the floor crying — we both did,” Anntionette said. 

Charles Hull, left, with his wife Anntionette, right, at 3D Systems in Valencia. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal
Charles Hull, left, with his wife Anntionette, right, at 3D Systems in Valencia. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal

Hull, who goes by Chuck in his work life, but Charles at home, spent the 1980s filing patents, the first being for stereolithography apparatus in 1984 through UVP, and coining the term “stereolithography.” 

According to the 3D Systems website, stereolithography “uses an ultraviolet laser to precisely cure photopolymer cross-sections, transforming them from liquid to solid. Parts are built directly from CAD data, layer-by-layer into prototypes, investment casting patterns, tools, and end-use parts.” 

A successful prototype meant that Hull discovered the key to creating a successful printer, innovating technology as the years went by.  

In 1987, 3D Systems Corp. went on to release the first stereolithographic apparatus machine, which “made it possible to fabricate complex parts, layer by layer, in a fraction of the time it would normally take. Hull went on to file more than 60 patents around the technology, becoming the godfather of the rapid prototyping movement and inventing the STL file format that’s still in use today,” according to Autodesk

Charles Hull with President Biden on Oct. 24. Photo courtesy of Anntionette Hull.
Charles Hull with President Biden on Oct. 24. Photo courtesy of Anntionette Hull.

Hull, who was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014, as well as receiving the European Inventor Award, traveled to the White House on Oct. 24 with Anntionette to receive the National Medal of Technology and Innovation

Recognized by President Joe Biden and given a medal, Hull received the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement, “bestowed by the president of the United States on America’s leading innovators,” according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office.  

Anntionette Hull holds a piece of the first part of the printer created on Oct. 10, 1983. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal
Anntionette Hull holds a piece of the first part of the printer created on Oct. 10, 1983. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal

The Hulls have plans to donate the remaining part to the Smithsonian Museum in the near future to accompany the first 3D machine already displayed. 

Nathan Shyam, a local eighth grader who created two 3D printers, visited 3D Systems with his family to learn more about Hull and Anntionette’s journey — one that started 41 years ago, and has evolved technology ever since. 

Previously working at DuPont, Hull had developed equipment for chemists, before moving to UVP (now Analytik Jena AG) to focus on UV curing. 

As an engineer who designed plastic parts, Hull reflected on the time that previously had been consumed in designing a part and waiting for it to come back to his standards.

“A molder makes the part and several weeks later, maybe a couple of months later you get the part, and you go, ‘Oh that’s not right.’ So, you go through the cycle over and over ’til you have that part right. And I said, ‘Is there a way we get those parts really quickly?’” Hull said. 

Nathan Shyam, left, looks intently at the piece of the original 3D printer next to its inventor, Charles Hull. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal
Nathan Shyam, left, looks intently at the piece of the original 3D printer next to its inventor, Charles Hull. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal

Using efficiency as an incentive to try to create his own pieces, Hull convinced his boss to work in the now-historical lab, dedicating nights and weekends perfecting his vision. 

Nearly six months later, Hull revolutionized technology, embarking on years of perfecting the craft, establishing a company that now employs 2,000 people and inspires the next generation, such as Shyam.  

Nathan Shyam, left, admires Hulls' medal given to him by President Biden on Oct. 24. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal
Nathan Shyam, left, admires Hulls’ medal given to him by President Biden on Oct. 24. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal

While 3D printing is now used for various industries, such as automotive, aviation and even health, nothing of such a high caliber comes without its challenges. 

“The initial materials I had for coding furniture were not very good. The process of developing materials that had good enough properties to commercialize was a huge challenge,” Hull said. “Starting the business, raising the capital and so forth, is a huge challenge. And of course, every year there’s new challenges. As we say this, any high-tech stuff is not easy. You must overcome problems.” 

Regardless of the problems faced, Hull’s determination throughout the years has impacted various realms, such as education. 

“3D printing is used a lot in schools, and the kids tend to get inspired a lot because tangible things are much easier to learn and communicate about than writing something out and so forth. It’s a great learning tool, especially in terms of engineering, manufacturing, and those kinds of things,” Hull said. 

In addition, Hull is confident that the growth of 3D printers will continue to make the ideas that children have become a reality. 

“I’m always confident that 3D printing will have a future for younger generations. I think the good thing is it’s become kind of a more routine tool for younger generations — it frees their thinking, [with questions such as] ‘What should I make, what can I make?’ It’s an innovation tool as well,” Hull said. 

Nathan Shyam, right, holds up the piece of the original 3D printer as his father, Shyam Raghavan, left, takes a picture. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal
Nathan Shyam, right, holds up the piece of the original 3D printer as his father, Shyam Raghavan, left, takes a picture. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal

The future of 3D printing is evolving as technology advances. 

“There’s lots of applications in aerospace, so we worked with all the main aircraft companies. The applications are different depending on what you’re doing on the aircraft, but if it’s a metal part, we have a process where instead of printing a solid part, we print a part that’s almost hollow,” Hull said. “So just a little matrix that holds it all together. And that becomes a pattern for metal casting.”  

Hull, who is at the forefront of the changing industries, is not slowing down. Innovation for health, and helping people who could utilize its technology, is next on Hull’s agenda. 

“We’re working on transplantable lungs, transplantable kidneys. We print the scaffold for that and then apply the cells and so forth to bring it to life,” Hull said. 

Anntionette exudes pride in her husband’s dedication to utilize his expertise for the good of accessible health resources.  

“Two, three years ago, Charles said, ‘Well, honey, would you come up here? I want to show you something on the computer. I broke the code again for the scaffold that can be transplanted into a person once they harvest the cells, grow it in a petri dish, and then implant it into the three-dimensional scaffold,’” Anntionette said. “You’ll never in your life, in your children’s life, have to have a transplanted body part from another human being.”  

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