3D printing, the additive-manufacturing technology Charles W. Hull developed, has made rapid prototyping possible and opened up new applications across countless industries. The technology could one day become one of the biggest advances in manufacturing since the industrial revolution.
Charles W. Hull In the early 1980s, Charles W. Hull set out to improve the tedious process of creating small plastic parts for prototyping involved in testing new product designs. Only one year after he had developed the first model of his 3D printer, Hull applied for a patent for his invention: a machine that could perform in a matter of minutes what would normally take several weeks of moulding and casting.
Hull, who was then working at a company that used UV light to apply thin sheets of plastic veneers onto table tops, furniture and paper products, realised that if he was able to overlay thousands of these laminate layers on top of each other and etch their shape using UV light, he could form three-dimensional objects in nearly any conceivable form. Today stereolithography has become the state of the art for prototyping new models – and an industry in itself. Societal benefit
Printers designed by Hull’s company 3D Systems have made their way into myriad industrial and commercial uses: Medical-technology companies rely on them to create models of patients’ jaws and facial structures; an automotive safety company uses the technology to design “intelligent” crash-test dummies; a watchmaker uses 3D Systems’ printers to evaluate designs before final production – and the list goes on. From aeroplane wings and architectural models to toys and electric bicycles, countless products and prototypes come to life faster and cheaper than ever before.
3D Systems, founded in 1986, became a leader in the 3D printing industry, posting sales of about US $350 million in 2012. It is now listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange and employs more than 1000 people. The market for 3D printers and 3-D printing services was valued at US $2.2 billion in 2012 (a 29% increase from 2011). According to current estimates, the annual market value will increase to US $4 billion by 2025. TechNavio forecasts the global rapid-prototyping systems market to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 15.6% from 2011 until 2015.
Originally used for the rapid production of prototypes for form and fit testing, 3D printing is now transitioning towards the manufacture of final products – and the 3D printing landscape keeps evolving, as new uses for the technology are being discovered every day.
About the award
Celebrating the spirit of invention
The driving force behind the innovation process is people - people with a passion for discovery. Without their inquisitive minds, their quest for new ideas and their creativity, there would be no inventive spirit and no progress. As one of the most prestigious competitions of its kind, the European Inventor Award pays tribute to the creativity of inventors the world over, who use their technical, scientific and intellectual skills to make a real contribution to technological progress and economic growth and so improve people's daily lives.
Launched by the EPO in 2006, the award gives inventors the recognition they deserve. And, like every competition, it acts as an incentive for other potential winners. It helps to protect ideas and encourage innovation.
About the trophy
Winners of the European Inventor Award are presented with a trophy in the shape of a sail. An enduring symbol of exploration and human ingenuity, the sail recalls how an inventive idea can propel humankind to uncharted shores. The trophy was conceived by German industrial designer Miriam Irle and is crafted with new materials every year, highlighting the ever-changing nature of innovation.
For 2014 the trophy has been elegantly fashioned by KPM – the Royal Porcelain Factory in Berlin – which has been designing high-quality porcelain ornaments for over 250 years. Renowned the world over, the KPM sail will provide the winners with a memorable souvenir of the Award Ceremony in Germany’s capital.