3D-Printed Custom-Fit Condoms Are the Future of Sex

Concept image of Condoms Andrew Paterson/Getty

A woman brings her date back to her place. Things get steamy. Clothes come off…but, you know, gotta be safe. She takes out her phone, scans her guy's nether regions, then hits Print. The 3-D printer in her backroom whips up a custom-size hydrogel condom that fits the guy like vacuum wrap on a package of hot dogs. Good times ensue, and nobody had to run out to the drugstore.

That's not a scrapped scene from Blade Runner 2049—it could happen before your Bumble membership expires. Several technologies are swirling together to bring serious innovation to condoms for the first time since the Youngs Rubber Co. started making latex Trojans in the 1920s. The innovation is just beginning, pushing hard against regulatory agencies that can't keep up with the science. Still, this is coming. So to speak.

The emerging rubbers revolution fits into the grand scheme of how technology is radically changing the global economy. Cloud computing, mobile phones, artificial intelligence and 3-D printing are driving a trend that venture capitalist Hemant Taneja and I call "unscaling" in our book, Unscaled, due out next March.

In the 20th century, mass-production technology ruled, and businesses sought economies of scale by getting big and making the same thing for as many people as possible. In this century, technology is allowing for mass customization. Businesses will increasingly seek to make a highly customized thing for every single person—the opposite of a mass-produced product for a mass market. Where economies of scale used to win, in years to come, these "economies of unscale" will reign.

You can see an early outcome of this trend in a company called One, which recently started selling the MyOne condom in 60 sizes based on length and girth measurements. As the company website notes: Pants come in a variety of measurements, so why shouldn't condoms? Yet until now, condoms have come in just a couple of sizes—regular and large. (Who's going to buy a condom labeled "small"?) We've had limited choice because the economics work better if a single manufacturing line churns out millions of the same item. On top of that, condoms are considered to be medical devices, which leads to regulators creating standards and testing processes that can't easily be changed.

"There are testing labs all over the world that have invested in expensive equipment," Davin Wedel, CEO of One, tells me. One of the tests fills a condom with a specific volume of water to see if it leaks, but a smaller, flawless condom would just burst because it can't hold that much water. Wedel worked with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for years to devise more useful tests for a variety of condom sizes. "That had been the thing that kept us from getting to market," he says.

In the meantime, One invented highly automated new machines that can make the many condom sizes. Just as important, the internet and cloud gave the company a way to reach consumers. As Wedel explains, it would be impossible to convince retail stores to carry 60 sizes of condoms on their limited shelf space. It would also be a challenge to give men a way to measure themselves while standing in a Walmart aisle. The One website includes instructions to help men to find their fit that can be carried out in private. ("Here's where a great magazine, movie, or helpful friend can come in handy," the instructions note.)

It's a baby step toward unscaling last century's condom industry, and technology is likely to do much more.

3-D printing has been slow to develop, and practical home printers still seem like science fiction. But the next big leap in 3-D printing will be in small-batch manufacturing. Instead of building an assembly line, imagine a company like One filling a factory floor with 3-D printers, each able to quickly make any size condom on demand. Once that happens, a company could wait to get your order, then print and ship custom-size condoms to you. Since 3-D printers don't take up much space, a company might put small-scale condom factories in every city. If drone delivery becomes real, your condom order might be made and dropped in your yard in a couple of hours.

For that to happen, materials have to change. No 3-D printer is likely to be able to work with latex. But scientists all over the world, including at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Wollongong in Australia, are designing hydrogel condoms. Hydrogel is the kind of squishy material found in soft contact lenses. Other groups, like one at the University of Manchester in England, are working on condoms made from graphene, a carbon-based nanomaterial. There's a chance 3-D printers could use hydrogels or graphene to churn out flawless, reliable condoms.

In October, Sony released its Xperia XZ1 smartphone, which includes one of the most advanced 3-D scanners yet. Move it around any object, and the software creates a fully rendered 3-D image that can be animated to put into video games. With a few snippets of code, technology like that could be made to measure and create an actual-size 3-D image of any sort of organ. This will cause some trouble if it winds up in the hands of mad sexters like Anthony Weiner, but it could send perfect measurements to a 3-D printer to customize a condom.

Though it may take a decade, effective 3-D printers will find their way into homes. If the FDA can figure out how to deal with regulations, we'll see the birth of the just-in-time condom. Unscaling, in other words, means you'll be able to have a condom for every conceivable occasion.