Stopping bullets with 3D printers

Can the same kind of technology that can 3D print a replica of a SpaceX rocket engine be used to produce a new kind of body armor for soldiers and law enforcement?

Winston Frazer, founder of Early Charm portfolio firm Danae, figured it could. His company specializes in outsource 3D printing and additive manufacturing, and uses its more than a dozen industrial-scale 3D printers to make products ranging from custom parts for Humvees to handles for hotel safes.

Frazer said he was inspired to try 3D printing bulletproof materials when a commercial partner came to him with questions about creating a new kind of protective chest plate that is lighter and far more comfortable to wear than some existing body armor products made of steel and Kevlar. He learned it is not uncommon for soldiers and cops to remove, or simply not wear, their body armor while on duty or in combat scenarios because it is unwieldy and can affect maneuverability. It was a clear and important problem Frazer thought his company’s tech could help solve.

“We constantly look at problems in the market and think about whether a solution is 3D printable,” Frazer said. “We can make small things that are useful today, or bigger things that could eventually change people’s lives.”

Using a specialized design and 3D printing process (the details of which he isn’t ready to talk about publicly just yet), Danae was able to produce a prototype that was, indeed, able to stop a 9 mm bullet fired at close range. Now, the company will put more research and development work into ensuring the plate has other crucial features, including water resistance, comfortability, and the ability to stand up to repeated high-force blows.

The project presented an exciting new challenge for Frazer, an alumnus of Baltimore’s Maryland Institute College of Art. He was initially inspired to start Danae over five years ago after visiting the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, where he met several amputees. He sought to help them by producing custom, aesthetically pleasing covers for their prosthetics.

As he got more involved in the industry and realized the scope of capabilities of different 3D printing technologies, Frazer’s ideas of what his company could be and do expanded. Danae has evolved into a custom manufacturer for pretty much any part or product, but its core mission remains to produce things “that affect humans’ quality of life,” Frazer said.

“The truth is, we can 3D print almost anything,” he said. “The challenge is in thinking about whether a particular solution is actually something that should be 3D printed, and then how we should actually do it.”

He takes pride in knowing the parts Danae makes today are put to use all across the world, serving a variety of purposes for amputees, athletes, soldiers, other companies, and everyday consumers.

Danae was brought into the Early Charm portfolio last summer, and Frazer now works alongside the scientists and entrepreneurs who are developing the technologies behind the studio’s more than 30 ventures. He said the experience has further expanded his view of what is possible in the 3D printing space. For example, he noted the scanning technology being developed by Perphora “could be a gamechanger.” It could allow Danae to gain visibility into the layers of a part during printing, so that any flaws or issues could be quickly caught and remedied.

Frazer even has ideas for new 3D printing technologies he wants to develop, with Early Charm’s help, “that could push the entire industry forward.” But that’s a story for another blog.

Author: Morgan Eichensehr
Bio: Morgan Eichensehr is a technical writer for Early Charm. She tells the stories behind the science being done at the venture studio's portfolio companies.

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