Consumer Products

Chuck Hull and Bre Pettis, Pioneering and popularizing 3D printing

Chuck Hull is considered the father of three-dimensional printing. He originally called it stereolithography, for which he was issued a US patent in 1986. He founded 3D Systems the same year. Bre Pettis, a dedicated maker and tinkerer, wanted a 3D printer but could not afford the industrial priced and sized machines, so he set out in 2009 to create an affordable and accessible desktop-sized 3D printer. His company, MakerBot, has helped open the technology much more widely to consumers.

In his patent, Hull said he had invented a method for making solid objects by successively printing thin layers of material one on top of another. The company called its first device a Stereolithography Apparatus. It is known as additive technology because successive layers of material are added as opposed to traditional subtractive processes, which rely on machines to cut, grind, bore, mill or drill away materials when creating products.

The technology today is more commonly referred to as 3D printing because of how it resembles a computer inkjet printer, but able to “print” things in three dimensions. The process begins with computer-aided design software that takes a series of digital images or slices of the object that is to be printed. Those instructions are sent to the printer, which deposits successive layers of material until a three-dimensional object is built. The printer can use a variety of materials including liquid plastic, polycarbonate, metallic powder, clay and even human tissue.

Engineers, architects, designers, artists and entrepreneurs use 3D printing to speed up the innovation process.  Initially, 3D printers were used for rapid prototyping of new designs. They saved manufacturers and designers huge amounts of time and money by quickly producing models instead of having to wait weeks for prototypes traditionally fabricated from clay, wood or metal. Though quite expensive, 3D printers found wide usage for designing such things as tools, jewelry and airplane parts.

Then hobbyists got interested. An open source group at the University of Bath in the UK created designs for a desktop 3D printer called the RepRap (Replicating Rapid Protyper) that could be built by do-it-yourselfers. Anyone is allowed to use without charge its design for both the machine and parts it could make.

But it was MakerBot that finally helped make 3D printing available to almost anyone by bringing down the price and complexity. MakerBot’s first 3D printer, introduced in 2009 was the CupCake CNC, which it sold as a kit for hobbyists to assemble. Today Makerbot sells its fourth-generation 3D printers, the MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D Printer and the MakerBot Replicator 2X Experimental 3D Printer, which are fully assembled, along with the newly released MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner, and has garnered 30% share of the 3D printer market.

To encourage wider use, MakerBot operates a website called Thingverse, the world’s largest 3D design community to print and share 3D designs for items ranging from replacement parts to jewelry to manufacturing models. Visitors to the site can download the 100,000+ digital design files for free, enter them into their 3D printers and start printing everything from pliers to a toy Boeing 737 airplane. The US Army is using a 3D printer in Afghanistan to create tools and other gear for soldiers in the field.

In August 2013, MakerBot merged with 3D printing company Stratasys in a $403m deal.

Terry Wohlers, a US consultant, estimates that the global market for additive manufacturing products and services was valued at US$2.2 billion in 2012 and will reach US$6.5 billion by 2019.

Chuck Hull, co-founder, executive vice-president and chief technology officer of 3D Systems, and Bre Pettis, co-founder and chief executive officer of MakerBot

Winner 2013

Bre Pettis, co-founder and chief executive officer, MakerBot

Winner 2013

Chuck Hull, co-founder, executive vice-president and chief technology officer, 3D Systems

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