On that evening, more than three decades ago, when he invented 3D printing, Chuck Hull called his wife.
She was already in her pyjamas, but he insisted that she drive to his lab to see the small, black plastic cup that he had just produced after 45 minutes of printing.
It was March 19, 1983. Hull was then an engineer working at a U.S. firm that coated furniture with a hard plastic veneer. As part of his work, he used photopolymers — acrylic-based liquids — that would solidify under ultraviolet light. Hull thought the same sort of process might be used to build a three-dimensional object from many thin layers of acrylic, hardened one after another, with targeted UV light from a laser beam.
Hull pursued his research on nights and weekends until finally sharing his eureka moment with his wife, Anntionette.
“I did it,” he told her simply.
Hull took out a series of patents on his invention and went on to co-found a company, 3D Systems, that remains a leader in the field. Last year, the 75-year-old was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Hull’s invention launched a wave of innovation. Design engineers embraced 3D printers as the answer to their prayers: Instead of waiting weeks or months to have new parts produced, they could design them on computers and print prototypes the same day.
3D printers have since evolved and can now use all kinds of materials, including metals, ceramics, sugar, rubbers, plastics, chemicals, wax and living cells. It means designers can progress rapidly from concept to final product.
Advances in the printers’ speed, accuracy and versatility have made them attractive to researchers, profit-making firms and even do-it-yourselfers.
The cost of the machines has also dropped dramatically, which means it’s easy for home inventors to enter the field. Home Depot sells a desktop version for $1,699 while Amazon.com markets the DaVinci Junior 3D printer for $339.
The machines have been used to print shoes, jewellery, pizza, cakes, car parts, invisible braces, firearms, architectural models and fetal baby models (based on ultrasound images).
The wave of innovation triggered by the 3D printer is only now beginning to crest in the field of medicine. Researchers are racing to engineer implantable livers, kidneys and other body parts with the help of 3D printers.
In Canada, scientists are using 3D bioprinters as they work toward creating new limb joints made from a patient’s own tissue, and implantable skin for burn victims.