May 6, 2014

The European Patent Office (EPO) has nominated 74-year-old American 3D printing inventor Charles Hull for this year's European Inventor Award in the category "Non-European Countries".

Launched in 2006, the European Inventor Award is presented annually by the European Patent Office. The Award honours inventive individuals and teams whose pioneering work provides answers to the challenges of our age and thereby contributes to social progress, economic growth and prosperity.

A total of 300 inventors and inventor teams were put forward for this year's Award, fifteen of whom were selected as finalists by the international jury.

The prize, considered Europe's "Oscars of Technology and Innovation", will be presented by the European Patent Office (EPO) at a gala ceremony in Berlin on 17 June. The public can vote online for their favourite in the "Popular Prize."

In 1983, Charles Hull came up with the idea of using epoxy resin, already used just for coatings, in thin laminated layers, one on top of the other, and etching their shape with ultraviolet light: the electrolytic 3D printer was born. Today, every 3D printer works on the basis of his idea.

"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." write EPO in a statement.

"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." EPO President Benoît Battistelli said. "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."

You can vote for your favourite inventor from among the 15 finalists on the EPO website or on Facebook.

Charles W. Hull

An idea takes shape

When working for his former employer, Ultraviolet Products (UVP), Charles ("Chuck") Hull usually spent weeks moulding 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.

Posted in 3D Printing Company

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