You don't have to be able to follow the intricately complex plot threads of HBO's hit sci-fi series Westworld — who can? — to see the hypothetical picture in its fabric: by the early 2050s, theme park robots will be so lifelike that it'll be impossible to tell the difference between them and us. Though not inherently a problem, their verisimilitude will complicate matters when a few become sentient and decide to take over.
As all good sci-fi stories do, Westworld's hinges on our acceptance that the reality it presents is possible in this dimension or another. The show lays the foundation of its premise in a moody intro sequence set to an ominous piano soundtrack as it depicts the manufacturing of these futuristic automatons. Blink (or press the "Skip Intro" button) and you'll miss a robotic arm drawing a synthetic tendon onto a horse, bison or human, depending on which season you're watching. Of course, these robots are 3D printed.
Thirty years before Westworld’s present timeline, 3D printing still inhabits a somewhat boring reality.
Take, for example, one of 3D printing's most impressive recent outputs: a nasal swab. These innocuous medical implements revealed the lag and fragility of the global manufacturing supply chain in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when, as testing ramped up, supplies ran low. It turned out that only two companies in the world made flexible six-inch-long brain ticklers, one in Maine and one in Italy. Neither had the capacity to meet demand.
But in Silicon Valley, top executives at 3D printing startup Carbon deployed its in-house team of designers and strategized with a medical manufacturing company in Minnesota, an assistant professor of pathology at Harvard, and laboratory and nursing staff at Stanford to create a new, printable swab and fill the gap. It took four days to create an FDA-approved design and less than three weeks to get it into high production.
Surely, it's hard to compare a nasal swab to an animatronic bison tendon. Nevertheless, Fast Company singled out Carbon’s invention as a "design marvel" among its 2020 Innovation by Design awards. And it is striking — if you're picturing a wad of cotton at the end of a long stick, think again; the applicator tip is a complex lattice array that looks like an organic chemistry diagram made real, its hollow structure flexible and adept at collecting mucus.
Witnessing a batch of Lattice Swabs emerging from one of Carbon's unique 3D printers is even more impressive. An inverted stage hovers over a puddle of liquid material; slowly, the stage rises, pulling the swabs from the pool as if they'd been there all along. They haven't, and yet here they are, like so many geometric stalactites. This is not the slow, bottom-up, layer-by-layer version of 3D printing that came to fore in the early 2000s.
That's because back then, this technology didn't exist. The technology powering Carbon's printers was invented in 2013 by a team of scientists helmed by Joseph DeSimone at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. DeSimone is a materials scientist, a chemist and an inventor with more than 200 issued patents. He's one of only 25 people to have been elected to each of the US's trifecta of National Academies of Sciences, Medicine and Engineering. In 2016, President Obama honored him with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the highest award for such achievements.
Still, for a long time, 3D printing wasn't on his radar. "I think somebody walked into his office one day and was like, 'look at this cool thing,'" says Phil DeSimone, Joe's son and Carbon's chief product and business development officer. The "cool thing" was a MakerBot, one of the desktop-scale 3D printers that helped bring the technology to its media-fueled height in the early 2010s. According to Phil, Joe's reaction was tempered: "'Looks like a bunch of mechanical engineers trying to solve a materials science problem.'"
So the elder DeSimone, the materials scientist, got to work.
He and his collaborators came up with CLIP (Continuous Liquid Interface Production). Working with the idea that in UV-curable chemistry, light can cause a liquid to turn into a solid and oxygen can prevent that transformation from taking place, they designed a system that simultaneously harnesses both. In CLIP, a projector beams UV images up through a window into a pool of material. The material that gets hit by the light cures. But oxygen can also get through that window, making a dead zone just above it where the material cannot harden. It's only a third as thick as a human hair — that's about 23 microns, give or take — but it's enough for the liquid material to backfill as the hardened object above the dead zone ascends, allowing for the continuous creation of a 3D object.
Joe DeSimone debuted CLIP to the world onstage in a 2015 TED talk, which is now free to view online. Clean shaven with a business-appropriate haircut and wearing professorial tweed and a blue Oxford (sans the expected if not obligatory bow tie), DeSimone is perhaps not the vision of a revolutionary scientific mind; more Ford than Einstein, and certainly dissimilar from Musk, Dorsey and Zuckerberg.
In his hand is a red ball about the size of a golf ball; it looks like an atomic model, or a toy. "It is not manufacturable by traditional manufacturing techniques," he says. "It has a symmetry such that you can't injection-mold it, you can't even manufacture it through milling." As DeSimone explains that such an object can only be made by a 3D printer — one inspired by Terminator 2's liquid metal T-1000 android no less — the inverted stage of a Carbon machine descends into a puddle of red goo. This is the moment when many members of the audience likely stop paying attention to DeSimone to focus instead on the object emerging from the soup. It's done in about six minutes.
At the time, a typical 3D printer would've required as long as 10 hours to produce the same small ball. Speed is a major advantage CLIP has over 3D printing as we've previously known it, but it's not the only one. DeSimone says that the traditional approach is really 2D printing over and over again, one layer on top of another. The final objects have striations where they're structurally weak, which is why 3D printing is okay for prototyping but not creating final products. (Plus, they look 3D printed.) These are the reasons why the technology hasn't taken off.
The TED video fits into a certain genre of optimistic scientific content that proliferated on social media news feeds before they became political battle grounds. While most inventions have yet to materialize in our lives, Carbon is a very real company — real to the tune of $680 million in publicly disclosed funding and a valuation of $2.4 billion.
You wouldn't readily surmise the company's unicorn status from a trip to its Redwood City, California, headquarters. Its office is a cavernous, open-format space but lacks the stereotypical Silicon Valley flair; there's not a Ping-Pong table or beanbag chair in sight. There is a vault though — the office was previously home to, ironically, a 2D printing company that made billboards and, before that, Masterlock. The vault safeguarded the original combos for locks in case people forgot theirs, and it was more expensive to remove it than leave it, according to Phil DeSimone. Now it's a museum of sorts, curated with past iterations of Carbon's 3D printers. The first looks like some instrument you'd find at an optometrist's office, the second, a countertop coffee dripper or perhaps a sleek humidifier.
The current generation of printers are sleek, cylindrical, head-high and satisfyingly futuristic. Unlike MakerBot, these are not for at-home tinkering, they're for real manufacturing. And they start at $25,000. Per year. Like many new tech ventures, Carbon uses a subscription model, but for that annual fee, Carbon's partners get routine software upgrades that can make printing faster or create compatibility with a new resin. It also provides access to the Carbon Design Engine, which makes creating those previously unmakeable lattice objects a snap, despite the fact that there are 1,500 geometries to choose from. "If you like it on day one, you're going to love it in six months," DeSimone says.
Compared to the piston-pumping cacophony of the machines that inhabit a typical manufacturing floor, Carbon's printers work in relative quiet. On any given day they might be cranking out parts for a Ford Mustang, bike saddles for Specialized, midsoles for Adidas, custom helmet inserts for professional football and hockey players or...dentures. "We power about fifty percent of the largest providers of dentures," says DeSimone.
Recently, Carbon was printing lumbar supports for an upcoming backpack line from Osprey called UNLTD, due out in early 2022. Mike Pfotenhauer, Osprey's founder, had a notion a few years ago that backpack design had stagnated, that a low price ceiling had prevented designers from creating something premium and truly innovative. While scouring Vietnam factories for new advanced materials, he and his team came across one that was producing soles for Adidas's Futurecraft running shoe using Carbon printers.
"The thing that attracted me most was the ability to do lattice engineering," Pfotenhauer says. To have precise zonal control of compression in a material that's simultaneously lightweight and breathable made a Carbon-printed product ideal for a backpack.
Pfotenhauer did have doubts — whether what came out of the printer was sewable, whether it could handle UV exposure, whether it could take on the weather conditions that a multiday hike through the Tetons or Grand Canyon might present. But these were allayed through the hand-in-hand development process Carbon employs when partnering with a new brand; getting a component onto Osprey's most innovative pack to date is equally important to Carbon, particularly given that most of the products it produces are unseen — electrical connectors or components inside medical devices — and especially after three decades of forecasters proselytizing 3D printing as the future of manufacturing without it actually happening.
Also, Pfotenhauer is convinced the Carbon-made lumbar support is better than any Osprey has previously used on a pack. It's more breathable than foam ones yet supportive, comfortable and even grippy. The same is true of Specialized's bike saddle, Adidas's 4DFWD running shoe and Riddell and CCM's sports helmets; all of these products are better than their predecessors. Carbon isn't just concerned with making 3D printing faster, it wants to make better stuff.
It truly is astonishing and somewhat bewildering that the same machine that spits out personalized dentures can produce a high-tech lumbar support for a hiking backpack, particularly given the degree to which hyper-specialized machines designed to make one thing have defined manufacturing for so long. Loosen the bounds that constrain your conception of reality, and it isn't hard to imagine that Carbon's printers aren't printers at all, but portals to another product world.
In reality, that's precisely what's happening. You may have recently heard the term metaverse bandied about in relation to NFTs, cryptocurrency or the video game Fortnite. It's still ill-defined, but the word generally refers to the version of the internet we can inhabit and spend time and money in. It’s a version where the real-life musician Travis Scott can hold a virtual concert and more than 12 million people show up to watch together, virtually. It's another world, one we've been creating for the past few decades.
A core attribute of the metaverse is that its inhabitants can build things, buy things. (Recently, a digital version of Gucci's Dionysus handbag sold for thousands more than the real thing.) These digital goods are simulacra of real-world objects, copies brought to the metaverse in lines of code. Carbon is pulling things out of the virtual space and into this physical one, only they're new, they couldn't have come from anywhere but the digital realm.
Phil DeSimone calls it "the digital manufacturing future." Here, a designer can turn an idea into a physical object that, until it comes out of the printer, never existed before, never could exist before. Better car parts and safer football helmets and more comfortable backpacks come from here. It's from here — a place where some outer edge of the metaverse that's still filled with CAD drawings instead of smiley animal avatars overlaps with our tangible world — that Carbon believes the future might emerge.
Like a small ball from a pool of goo.