New Dimensions in Footwear

3D printing has a lower profile as a consumer-facing licensing trend than it did a few years ago. But the technology continues strong behind the scenes, as a means to personalize products, implement unique designs, and achieve other goals. In many cases, consumers may not realize a given product is being created through this technique, although in some situations marketers continue to differentiate by touting the use of 3D printing in their marketing messages.

The footwear industry is one where a number of parties are innovating using 3D printing—often through collaborations among footwear marketers, technology specialists, and/or property owners such as fashion labels or celebrities—and are highlighting the technology to their customers.

Such ventures often set out to meet one or more of the following objectives:

  • Unique design elements such as lattice structures or raised areas. 3D printing can be a way to accomplish a designer’s unique vision when traditional means of manufacturing are impossible or impractical. Adidas has been a leader in this segment with its FutureCraft 4D program with 3D printing specialist Carbon; their design collaborators have ranged from retailers such as Footpatrol and Kith to fashion labels including Stella McCartney and Pleasures to artists such as Daniel Arsham. Separately, emerging designer Ganit Goldstein paired with 3D printing specialist Stratasys to create several collections of uniquely designed shoes (and apparel).
  • Personalization and fit. 3D printing allows customization based on individual sizes and shapes, enhancing comfort and performance. Chinese sportswear brand PEAK paired with NBA athlete Dwight Howard to debut a pair of high-top basketball sneakers with extra support around the ankle and other high-performance characteristics, as well as a lattice design. Danish footwear brand Ecco teamed with Cambridge Design Partnership and Dassault Systemes’ FashionLab for its Quant-U project, piloted in one of its stores in Amsterdam this April; customers have their foot scanned in-store and receive a shoe tailored to their specific foot shape and gait, with a customized mid-sole printed in a few hours. Nike designed its Nike Zoom VaporFly Elite Flyprint 3D shoe in collaboration with marathoner Eliud Kipchoge; this is the latest iteration in its Flyprint series, which the company says lowers race times by 4%. Dr. Scholl’s collaborated with Wiivv, a 3D-printed in-sole manufacturer, to offer its clients custom-printed in-soles that provide support in the right places for each individual. And Israeli designer Hadar Neeman created a 3D-printed ballet shoe that reduces chronic pain through extra durability and support, as well as perfect fit.
  • Manufacturing benefits. Reebok partnered with BASF for its Liquid Factory line of shoes, each with a 3D-printed outsole that allows Reebok to change designs without having to purchase new molds, leading to cost savings. (3D printing also enables a high-rebound quality that conserves the wearer’s energy.) Nike partnered with movie studio LAIKA to create an edition of Nike’s Air Max Susan tied to the film Missing Link. In this case both the licensor and the licensee had experience with 3D production, LAIKA in creating 3D design elements for its movies and Nike in rapid prototyping; such a relationship can allow for sharing of knowledge and assets.

Many other examples of 3D printing in the footwear category exist. The technology has been used for some time in this sector, and initiatives are gradually becoming more sophisticated, commercial, and collaborative.

While 3D printing can be the best or only way to achieve one of the three goals discussed here, it is not typically viable for mass manufacturing, and projects such as these often result in a limited edition or even just one pair of shoes. That said, Adidas and Carbon made 200,000 3D-printed midsoles for 100,000 pairs in 2018, across all of its FutureCraft 4D models. And Reebok, whose first run of Liquid Factory shoes in 2016 was 300 units, opened a factory in Rhode Island last year exclusively for 3D printing. Moves such as these indicate that the footwear industry is looking to scale up.

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