An important way to gain mastery is to learn from the master developers or users, those who developed a technology or an industry, or those who took a technology to a new level. One such master is Chuck Hull, the founder of stereolithography (SL).
Chuck Hull attended the 2015 Additive Manufacturing Users Group conference in April and was interviewed by Todd Grimm, president and founder of T.A. Grimm & Assoc. What follows are some of the comments he made during that on stage interview.
What is today known as additive manufacturing was initially nothing more than an attempt to solve the problem of how can you get prototypes of your design faster?
Chuck Hull, co-founder, executive vice president, and chief technology officer of 3D Systems, never imagined that his solution would create—among other things:
—an industry that employs thousands of engineers,
—a technology that has evolved into a new way to produce objects,
—a technology that enables solutions to difficult medical problems,
—and that allows low cost manufacturing of custom objects and products.
Mr. Hull just wanted to get through the prototyping phase of design faster, so that he could work out the kinks of a design more quickly, and move on to the next step. When Hull first developed his 3D printer, prototyping of plastic parts took weeks, often 6 to 8. 3D printing has cut that time down to as little as a few hours, depending on the design. The bonus was not only did this help Hull develop designs faster, he could see how it could save time for other engineers.
The benefit of mistakes
It’s been said that 3D printing allows engineers to “fail faster,” and there is value in that. The faster you learn what is not working, the faster you can fix it, saving time. When asked if he would do anything differently given his now 20/20 hindsight, Hull replied that “you learn from your mistakes; there’s really no other way to learn. So to say you should have done something differently is a little like being a Monday morning quarterback. My thought is you charge ahead with your best thoughts, and when you make mistakes, as quickly as possible try to figure that out, make any needed changes, and then move forward.”
The bigger, the better?
Today, many potential users of 3D printers want larger systems. The assumption is that creating larger printers is a simple matter. But as Hull noted, scale can be an issue. “Scaling 3D printing has lots of challenges,” said Hull. It’s not just a matter of building bigger.” When Hull was working to build larger SL systems, he noted it wasn’t as easy as people think it ought to be.
The surprise of medical
When you’re developing a solution to a problem, you’re not necessarily looking for how it can be used elsewhere. Hull has been pleasantly surprised by all the unintended uses of 3D printing. “To me what has been the most surprising is all the medical apps for 3D printing. It was not one of the things I had anticipated back in the early days. But within a few years, interest rose; there was a lot of interest from medical experimenters and it has grown since then. It’s an amazing application.
When asked about the STL programming format, Hull said, “I’m surprised how long that code has lasted. It’s pretty easy to use, a natural fit to stereolithography. It’s still early to know how it will all evolve. A lot of alternate formats are coming. My take is why even have an intermediate format, you should be able to just take the data directly from your designs into an AM system and operate it.”
“But there was almost no 3D CAD in the early days,” continued Hull, “at least not good programs. Our team started talking to the CAD companies, but it was extremely painful to try to get them to slice the CAD data appropriately. So basically I hired a consultant and together we figured out how to extract the data, put it into a neutral file format, and try to make it easy to use (the slice file.) That turned out to be the format we ultimately used (we looked into a couple of them.) We initially thought about patenting the code and decided that would defeat our purpose of spreading this code around.”
“The big driver in stereolithography is always the materials,” said Hull. Materials don’t necessarily like to be free-formed. They would rather be molded or machined, or just sit there. So the technical barrier is a combination of taking materials and figuring out how to 3D print them successfully, and that may involve modifying the material, depending on what you’re approach is.
“The other issue is practical cost targets,” Hull continued. “If you have lots of money, you can do a lot of things.” But without money, your design choices are limited.
Hull was asked whether the solution of SL “dropped into his lap?”
“When SL first started,” he answered, “our bigger systems were water cooled, but it was a big maintenance cost. We needed something different if this technology was to expand. We did not find any good outside solutions. Then a laser company came in and we found that idea worked well, and with better lasers and their help in redesigning our SL system, we got it to work better.
Another aspect of 3D printing involves time. For example, what’s the window available for what you want to achieve–short term, mid term, long term? “Most of what we do is short term where you can clearly see what can happen, and get it to market fast,” noted Hull. “The market changes so fast that designing for a longer term is a higher risk.”
“Most of this (the development of a new industry) was unexpected in 1983 with the initial vision,” said Hull. “An interesting aspect about 3DP and digital manufacturing, in general, is that it localizes manufacturing; it’s just as easy to make here as elsewhere.” Hull commented on how digital manufacturing is following a path similar to that of farming, where we are becoming less dependent on low-cost labor to advance productivity.
“In general,” he continued, “3D printing is a big part of digital manufacturing, the broad movement. It gives companies less reason to move to other regions of the world to make products, and a good reason to stay here. … And I think we can develop fantastic manufacturing methods based on 3d printing soon. 3D printing at this point has kind of taken on a life of its own. It’s expanded into lots of fields that we never envisioned early on. That’s going to continue. Most great things around 3D printing haven’t been invented yet. My prediction and vision is that this will expand.”
According to Hull, the metal 3D printing arena has the potential to be very disruptive to traditional ways of making objects. The medical and biomedical industries have the potential to disrupt our approach to traditional medical practices and protocols as well. “We will see some interesting things in the next 10 years.”
Part of the disruptive nature of 3D printing that could be an issue that few are thinking about now is how do you ensure that an additive part is “real,” and not a low-quality knock-off of a design? Hull noted that every engineer needs to be involved in policing this possibility. He doesn’t know how big of an issue this is at the moment, he personally has not seen much, but given the capabilities of 3D printing, the possibility is something to be aware of.
And finally, entrepreneurship
“I became an entrepreneur to ensure my future was in my own hands,” said Hull. But some general observations from his experience are that a larger company can’t be nearly as agile as an entrepreneurial company. “When you start out, you go through lots of stages, and the challenge is to get through them. I don’t claim to be super successful at that, but I’ve gone through it. … In my early days I felt fairly stifled by the large company effect, so I felt a lot more empowered when I became an entrepreneur.”