Mix light and oxygen to create anything you want in high quality and almost no time?
The non-chemists among us will be scratching their heads and wondering how this could be possible. It sounds like science fiction – but it’s exactly what Carbon CEO and Co-Founder, Dr. Joseph DeSimone, along with Carbon’s other co-founders developed.
The process, called Digital Light Synthesis (DLS) has the potential to bring customized high-performance products, like the new Futurecraft 4D running shoe, to any athlete as DLS remedies the shortcomings of traditional 3D printing and other manufacturing processes. Its production is fast and most importantly scalable.
Dr. DeSimone sat down with GamePlan A to share his insights into how Carbon is leading this revolution in manufacturing through inquisitive talent, diverse knowledge and open, collaborative relationships.
The effects of true innovation
Innovation is a big word. What sets it apart from just a smart idea?
Innovation changes the way a community thinks. It changes the trajectory of thought and it catches on. From that, it creates a new industry and new categories. If things are truly innovative, no one can think about it the old way anymore and that is what Digital Light Synthesis does. It changes fundamentally how people think about 3D printing.
To me, 3D printing is a misnomer. It is 2D printing over and over again. Even the Wikipedia definition says that 3D printing is a layer-by-layer process. Not only that, it’s a slow process and the materials traditionally being used within it were too limiting and inadequate to really drive a revolution in manufacturing.
When trying to rethink the process, we were intrigued and inspired by the idea of T1000 rising up from a puddle in the Hollywood movie Terminator II. And that’s essentially what we have done. We’ve made that a reality with Digital Light Synthesis.
Liberated from the preventers of progress
Turning great ideas into reality can be a long and challenging process. How did you approach your technology development?
We were successful because we had a compelling vision and a field of ginormous opportunity. After all, manufacturing is a multi-trillion-dollar industry. In addition, we were able to convince the best people in Silicon Valley to join our team. Part and parcel with that comes the best resources in history, and the smartest money in Silicon Valley. Sequoia Capital, Silver Lake, Google Ventures, BMW, GE and adidas are our investors.
The strategy is all about being different AND game changing. To get there, we did a patent search in the field of 3D printing before we got started. There were 830 patents in the last three years. All of them were layer by layer, maybe because all thought leaders in 3D printing were mechanical engineers. We, on the other hand, represented the polymer science community. There’s a real value and huge advantage to newcomers – they are not encumbered with how things were done the old way. Some of the best ideas come from connections made between people who are new to the process – connections between communities that have never talked.
My message to other innovators is simple: I think good ideas float to the top regardless. Ineffective teams, on the other hand, can ruin things, but if you’ve got a good idea AND a great team – that’s a powerful combination.
Hard to find, but indispensable: the right people
You definitely had a good idea, so what kind of people were you looking for when you started forming a team around you?
I’m a firm believer that diversity is a fundamental tenet of innovation.
Such a diverse group of people needs to be respectful and inclusive – not just of other disciplines but of other perspectives. So I was looking for people that were inquisitive and comfortable with interdisciplinary approaches.
In short, we hired pi- or comb-shaped people, as opposed to I- or T-shaped people. An I-shaped person is somebody who is really deep in a particular subject, but is very monolithic and not able to go towards other people and other disciplines. T-shaped people are people that are really deep in a particular subject but are also able to converse with others in other domains.
We were really looking for pi-shaped or comb-shaped people; that’s a higher calling. I am talking about those rare individuals that could be deep in multiple disciplines, in order for us to pull off something really special at the intersection of hardware engineering, software engineering and molecular science.
These are core tenets of our values at Carbon and that’s how we assembled our team from the very beginning.
How to create unity amongst diversity
What is your secret to getting the best out of this diverse team of experts?
I have a conversation with every new employee and put a lot of weight on one thing: You have to be clear about what you know, but you also have to be open about what you don’t know.
In a lot of organizations and communities people are guarded when it comes to not letting others know what they don’t know, because it’s often unsafe and you might get mis-categorized.
It takes a vulnerable trust to change that. Trust in a safe environment to allow people to be clear about what they know and what they don’t know is an essential element for all this to work. That way we don’t have a whole bunch of people staring at a hard problem and nobody knows what the hell is going on.
This vulnerable trust is embedded in our culture at Carbon. Without it, we couldn’t be doing what we are doing.
Don’t be a vendor when you can be a partner
Everybody out there wants to work with you right now. What are reasons for you to turn down a potential partnership and why would you go for another?
I would not partner with someone if it wasn’t a good product-market fit. If they were thinking too small – if they were thinking about just replacing their existing product with a similar product. At this stage we’re really interested in game-changing approaches and game-changing products. We wouldn’t work with someone who treated us like a vendor as opposed to a partner.
Instead, we need partners that are open, collaborative, understanding what they’re great at and understanding where they want to be. Obviously, they cannot have a ‘not invented here attitude’.
For example, we decided to partner with adidas because the product designers and the manufacturing engineering groups were acting as one. With Futurecraft 4D, they presented an extremely compelling product vision of how it was going to change and enhance human performance like we’ve not seen with other companies. They had a clear understanding that, if you could make this, you would enhance human performance and comfort would follow.
On my team, no one has ever experienced such a collaborative, open and encouraging partnership like the one we have with the adidas team. I am not blowing smoke here. I would say it’s so problematic that the team now has really high expectations of other partners in other industries.
The future of manufacturing is bright
Where will this partnership be five years down the road?
I want to see how we’re creating a new category in manufacturing. How we’re going to change the way people think. How we actually deliver on the vision of bespoke manufacturing and mass customization.
With our partnership with adidas, we will have a consumer face that will trigger crowd-accelerated innovation and empower more people to think innovatively.
It’s going to inspire people, it’s going to inspire communities and it’s going to inspire students to move into this field. I’m pretty excited about that because I love engineering and I love science.
Together with Carbon, adidas will deliver on the high goals of their Futurecraft program, which is the brand’s journey to define the future of craftsmanship through exploring new technology, design and collaboration in order to provide the best for each athlete.
In doing so, we will see the revolution of manufacturing evolve right in front of our eyes or, better yet, under our feet.