If I weren’t already happily married, I might be inclined to express my undying love for Alain Le Méhauté who demonstrated his quick wit, broad perception, and fiery personality in an interview with France’s Primante3D. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s the father of 3D printing.
Alain Le Méhauté, Olivier de Witte, and Jean Claude André filed their patents for the stereolithography process three weeks before Chuck Hull but their applications were abandoned by the French General Electric Company (now Alcatel-Alsthom) and CILAS (The Laser Consortium). However, far from seeming bitter, the grand duke of 3D printing is as proud as ever of their innovative work and he passionately advocates for the value of the technology.
Writer from Primante3D Alexandre Moussion caught up with Le Méhauté in the hopes of honoring the true inventors of this revolutionary technology and to hear how his analysis of the phenomenon has developed in the intervening 30 years. Moussion sees this story as yet another example of French innovation that fails to come to fruition for the benefit of France. He sees this difficulty as part of an almost cultural resistance to innovation despite the high quality of the research that is produced in France.
Le Méhauté worked as the scientist and engineer in chief at the Research Center for the General Electric Company from 1974 to 1996, when he left the company as a result of a disagreement with the company’s administration to take the job as the Director of the Materials Institute in Mans. He has since retired and taken a post as a visiting professor at the University of Kazan, in Russia, the same university where he completed his doctoral research in thermodynamics and fractals in chemical geometries.
He describes the commitment that led to the patent application as arising from a theoretical commitment: mathematical order, a passion for transdisciplinary science, and the belief in the explosive commercial potential. At first, the team was flying high–until they learned (through second-hand rumors) that their patent application had been abandoned because their employers could not perceive the size of the commercial potential.
As with all good invention stories, the creation of the stereolithography printing process occurred outside of the bounds of the normal performance of their jobs and required efforts to convince the otherwise technically minded engineers and technicians to engage with their creative potential.
Also, the laser was leaking and polluting their illegal laboratory. Sounds like the makings of a comic book super hero, doesn’t it?
What ultimately led to the denial of their place in the patent office wasn’t a masked villain, but instead the inability of those in leadership roles in financial institutions and the high-tech industry to see the potential of something as unprecedented as this. It’s almost as if they were handed the first laptop before the invention of electricity. And it’s a short-sightedness that Le Méhauté sees as a continuing problem, exacerbated by the practice of selecting candidates for management positions based on the performance of their last job rather than their suitability for the position at hand. In other words, they are promoted until they rise to the level of their incompetence and that failure may be the only evidence that the trickle down theory of economics holds any water.
Le Méhauté described his attitude in thinking back on his contribution and the success it has brought to Chuck Hull:
“I’m not bitter. I am proud of the innovative work we undertook and our efforts to promote technological innovation through the impetus of business and economic growth. Unfortunately, in contrast, I am sad for our country because this is not the only example of French innovation that has been better harnessed by those overseas, with obvious consequences for employment here.
“It is simply part of our normal practices to have recognized and awarded Chuck Hull as the sole inventor of this technology. I have great respect for Hull who had the courage to initiate the creation of 3D Systems in 1986. I also have a lot of admiration for the US’s ability to open doors to the future, even in cases where they can only understand theoretical approximations of the value. It’s something our French financial experts would laugh at doing, even today…We see the consequences of these attitudes every day and 3D technology is just one example of our collective failure.”
When asked where 3D printing’s domain ends, Le Méhauté all but throws his hands up in the air:
“It doesn’t matter! What is important is to create some true entrepreneurial movement around this mode of thinking, the danger isn’t that there are too many people interested and too many things to do! No, the danger exists in self-censorship and the conquest of the technology by purely practical careerists who would make light of theoretical knowledge and creative ideas for which the reasons are as yet unknown.”
In a demonstration of his profound understanding of the process of design, Le Méhauté indicates that failure is never failure but rather a necessary aspect of success. You work to unravel the problem, knowing that it is never possible to have all of the information you need in order to address it and have to be willing to grasp for a way to address it without necessarily knowing that it will all be neatly practical.
“We must learn to innovate as we learn to walk…to take the risk knowing that we might fall,” he said. “We must break the pernicious monopoly in national education present from kindergarten to university. France needs an elite for the 21st century, not the 19th.”
Well said, sir and I tip my hat to you.
Let us know what you think about these reflections in the Alain Le Méhauté forum thread over at 3DPB.com.