When Charles "Chuck" Hull created the first 3D printer in 1983, he never envisioned a time when these devices would generate hearts, ears, or blood.
"I had a faint inkling that it had more power than I initially thought," Hull told InformationWeek. "It's expanded beyond what I could possibly have predicted."
Since receiving a patent for what he first dubbed "sterolithography" in 1986, 3D printing has become an industry in its own right: Organizations create everything from prostheses to guns via a wide array of printers and "inks." Because of his vision and long-ranging impact, in May Hull was nominated for the European Inventor Award, along with fellow Americans Cary Queen and Harold Selick, who invented humanized monoclonal antibodies for drugs, and Japanese inventors Mashahiro Hara, Takayuki Nagaya, Motoaki Watabe, and Tadao Nojiri, who developed the QR code. The ceremony will occur on June 17 in Berlin.
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Although Hull, an electrical engineer by training, initially licensed his groundbreaking technology to employer Ultraviolet Products, when UVP could not afford to invest in a spinoff Hull licensed the product from UVP and founded 3D Systems. Today, 3D Systems focuses primarily on speeding up the printing speed for manufacturers, said Hull, and enhancing the software associated with 3D printers.
Healthcare is a growing area of 3D Systems' business, Hull said. The technology has transformed dentistry in particular, by allowing dental labs to automate many formerly manual processes. But 3D printing increasingly affects other areas of healthcare, including -- but certainly not limited to -- prostheses.
Healthcare will spend $4 billion on 3D printing by 2018, according to Visiongain. These printers could reshape healthcare by reducing surgery risks, personalizing and customizing parts, and giving new hope to patients unassisted by traditional medicine.
This is just amazing to me, the benefits that can bring. Healthcare has been one of our fastest-growing areas. I think the first one that impacted me was surgical planning, where maybe you do a CAT scan or MRI, and then use that data to construct a detailed model of the patient and whatever affliction there is, then the surgical team uses that to put in the surgery, so the surgery is not on the patient -- it's on models. The first one that struck me was on conjoined twins. That's a very successful surgery now, with detailed planning. There are people walking around today who were born as conjoined twins, but now have normal lives. That impressed me. It showed me the potential of some of the medical applications.
As 3D Systems, its partners, and competitors develop new materials, Hull predicts that medical professionals and researchers will create even more healthcare applications for 3D printers. Today the company also is involved in "food printing," Hull said, a capability that could reduce malnutrition in certain regions.
Price drops and access to less expensive materials are also encouraging more consumers to buy 3D printers, Hull said. However, he is hesitant to predict whether these devices will change today's manufacturing and logistics models.
"I certainly see more and more 3D printers in the home. Whether that displaces traditional manufacturing, I think that's a futuristic thought. I'm never much of a futurist," he said. "Certainly, there are no barriers in the future. A lot of manufacturing could be moved locally or even to the home, but to me that's quite a ways in the future."
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