For any new technology, interest from major players in established sectors, be it aerospace, medical or consumer products, can truly help to validate its position in the marketplace. Adding another string to 3D printing's bow, recognised names in the footwear sector have stated potentially groundbreaking intentions that have really drawn attention to the value of the technology in this particular industry.
Take for example Adidas, an internationally recognised brand that recently unveiled its take on digital footwear with the introduction of Futurecraft 3D, a customisable 3D printed running shoe mid-sole which can be tailored to the individual’s foot. The concept has been made possible through a partnership with Materialise who worked with Adidas to create a lightweight structure in the midsole to improve flexibility and maintain rigidness and strength.
Speaking at the launch, Eric Liedtke, Executive Board Member of Adidas AG, commented that Futurecraft 3D is a “statement of intent” that uses a unique material and process combination and performance data to “drive truly bespoke experiences.”
In theory, customers should be able to walk into an Adidas store, run briefly on a treadmill and instantly get a 3D-printed running shoe designed specifically for them. That alone is revolutionary enough and could provide athletes with the ability to get the best out of their performance. However, Adidas is not the only company declaring plans in the digital footwear industry and for others looking to move into the space, it’s about more than just the soles.
These boots were made for … everyone
“I’ll take a round-toe, 3-inch heel, with a T-bar, in Pillarbox Red, size 6 and a half”. Imagine if you could order a pair of shoes like you were ordering a cup of coffee. That’s exactly what Lucy Beard, wondered when she stood in line at Starbucks one day and turned it into a unique footwear concept, Feetz.
“I was fed up,” explained Lucy, CEO and founder of Feetz. “I went to a Starbucks coffee store and I ordered any coffee I wanted and I watched them make from two little machines - the coffee machine and the milk machine - 87,000 different combinations of coffee and so that was my light bulb moment.”
Feetz is described as a digital cobbler. Whereas in the old days you would have had shoes made for you to your specifications by a shoe-maker, now it’s more likely you’ll just have to hope the high street store has a shoe style you like and available in your size – that is unless you’ve got the spare cash to go old school and opt for a tailor-made pair. The idea behind Feetz is to give every individual the power to choose the shoes that they want and do so in an accessible way using a simple app and 3D printing.
Everyone’s feet are completely individual. In fact, your own feet are probably quite different from left and right. If someone said to me before this year’s TCT Show, “Hey Laura - instead of wearing those brand new show-shoes for a week beforehand to ‘break them in’ why don’t you just buy a pair that will just fit you in the first place?” – I would have said “gimme!” and probably avoided what I’m patenting, Tradeshow-Foot.
“We’re making it more accessible for every person to have the benefit of a shoe that fits,” Lucy adds. “I talked to a lot of people and they didn’t even like to get their feet out. So we were like ‘how do we make shoe fitting accessible, anywhere you are in the world?’ And I realised that carrying your smart phone in your pocket, you have the most powerful tool available.”
The process is simple. Using the Feetz app, you take three pictures of each foot from three different angles and in under a minute, a 3D model of your foot is generated using a combination of your profile and a database of thousands of feet. The shoes are then manufactured using a custom FDM technology and a specially developed material derived from traditional shoes.
“I went and asked every single vendor, partner and 3D printer maker out there and nobody had a material for footwear,” Lucy commented. “So instead we bought 100s of pairs of shoes, we melted them, we ground them up, we have material scientists on our staff and we reverse engineered what shoes are made of.”
3D printed shoes aren’t typically the most conventional form of footwear. From United Nude’s iconic custom designs printed on the 3D Systems Cube to Francis Bitonti’s algorithm generated, mathematical shoe concepts, they’re often more suited to a gallery exhibit than your feet. Having admitted to purchasing a pair of $1,000 SLS shoes herself, Lucy concurs that the shoes we’ve seen so far haven’t been the most practical and insists Feetz will not launch until people are willing to accept these products as shoes.
adidas Futurecraft 3D
“We started our beta testing in June, we’ve gone from 20 different styles and now we’ve come down to two where 90% of people are like “can I have these, I don’t want to give them back” - which is nice because at the start not many people were saying that!”, Lucy explained. “We will not go to launch until you will accept and wear these as real shoes. It’s taken us over a year of development to do this but now that we’ve reached that point where customers are saying “I want these shoes, I accept these as real shoes”.”
Feetz already has a backlog of thousands of orders and the company is set to produce an exclusive run of the shoes for the first 100 customers this Christmas ahead of starting mass production in Spring 2016.
“It’s insane that we have technology today that says we can have shoes that are custom made and we can keep up with the demand for 7 billion people on this planet. It’s just we’ve got to change what we’re used to in terms of what are shoes, how are they fit, what are the styles and that’s where 3D printing comes in.”
Software at the sole
It’s not just start-ups and established brands coming into the 3D Footwear market either. The potential has been recognised by key 3D technologies players who have struck up partnerships with these companies and done much of the groundwork behind the scenes to enable these concepts.
Autodesk recently launched a new group, Autodesk Footwear for the design and manufacture of footwear, custom insoles and even helped develop the technology behind Feetz.
Long before its partnership with Adidas, Materialise was pushing boundaries in the footwear industry by providing the technology and business models for customised insoles in collaboration with RSscan and RSprint. These wearables are not cool accessories for the contemporary fashion enthusiast, they’re purposeful products that provide real value, tailored to the individual’s data and lifestyle and currently the most accessible form of 3D footwear for the masses.
Like most products in the additive manufacturing industry, it’s about changing perceptions of what we perceive to be the norm and discovering how these products can add real value to our lives instead of simply making a statement about how they were made. With the influence of household names and strong foundations in AM to back it up, the possibilities are really starting to take shape.
“When the big players come in it actually really validates the technology, it isn’t just something like a maker sitting in a library, tinkering, it actually has real fundamental manufacturing ability,” Lucy added.