The sole of a shoe rises from a puddle of liquid in a 3D printer, like magic, or something out of a science-fiction film. But it’s real, and it’s a glimpse into the future of manufacturing.
A new running shoe by Adidas is the biggest commercial launch of a product using technology from Carbon, a company led by Joe DeSimone, a scientist and entrepreneur well-known in the Triangle. DeSimone, who was on the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University, now focuses his attention on the Redwood City, Calif., company he co-founded.
The Adidas shoe, called Futurecraft 4D, went on sale Thursday after a splashy launch in New York. It has a futuristic look, with a flexible lattice sole created by light and oxygen in a process known as Digital Light Synthesis – a revolutionary technique in which the object is “chiseled” by light, emerging from a liquid resin in a 3D printer. The shoe sells for $300, and it’s initially available at three stores in New York.
Thursday’s unveiling marks more than the latest sneaker fad. It ushers in an era of mass manufacturing using 3D printers that allow for products that can be customized for individuals.
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The technology from Carbon became public in 2015 with a TED talk by DeSimone and a paper published in the journal Science. Among his co-authors were UNC colleague Ed Samulski and others from UNC and N.C. State.
Since then, Carbon’s partnerships have mushroomed. The company is working with manufacturers of auto components, dental and orthopedic parts, consumer electronics, virtual reality headsets and other products.
Carbon has raised about $400 million in venture capital so far and has about three dozen issued patents. The company has grown to about 240 employees and will add another 100 this year, DeSimone said. The staff includes software engineers, hardware engineers and chemists.
In an interview this week, DeSimone said the traditional method of producing plastic and rubber parts in steel molds will fall by the wayside. “It’s over,” he said. “It’s absolutely over.”
He calls this new era “3D printing 2.0.” He likens the transition to the arrival of the laser printer after the days of the mimeograph machine.
The original 3D printers are slow and meant to make prototypes, not suitable for mass production. Carbon’s method has sped up the process dramatically.
“We’re on the cusp of a digital revolution in manufacturing that’s never happened before,” DeSimone said. “If you have a scalable, high-quality 3D printing digital fabrication technique, then all of a sudden you can change the speed of business.”
Carbon has built three types of printers. The company uses a subscription model to rent the printers to manufacturers, and also produces a variety of resins, the liquids from which the products are made.
In the case of Adidas, DeSimone estimated that 50 printers could produce a million pairs of shoes a year. Athletes played a key role in the design of the shoe. DeSimone said the lattice soles are cooler because air passes through, as opposed to a foam sole that traps heat. Each sole has 20,000 struts.
In the announcement for Futurecraft 4D, Ben Herath, the vice president of design for Adidas Running, said the new manufacturing process allows for athletes’ individual data – measurements, weight, height – to be used to build a shoe on demand.
“This innovation changes how we design and free ourselves from limitations of the past,” Herath said in a news release. “The possibilities of what we can now create with this technology to push the boundaries of performance is truly endless.”
Also this week, Adidas’ executive board member of global brands, Eric Liedtke, joined Carbon’s board of directors, further solidifying the relationship between the two companies.
DeSimone has created several other businesses, including Liquidia Technologies, a Research Triangle Park biopharmaceutical startup. He has won several national prizes, including the $250,000 Heinz Award last year and the $250,000 Kabiller Prize in Nanoscience and Nanomedicine in 2015. He received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2016 from President Barack Obama.
DeSimone’s last Ph.D. students in North Carolina graduated in the fall, and even though he is no longer on the payroll at the universities, he maintains an affiliation. He’s connected to university labs but does not have teaching responsibilities.
The lure of Silicon Valley and a new frontier in his specialty – polymer science – was too much for DeSimone.
“It’s as good as it gets,” he said. “I’m having a blast.”