The Future of Fit: How 3D Printing Is Reimagining Footwear End-Components

After disrupting product design and prototyping, 3D printing is changing the end-components that make shoes feel and perform even better. For decades, insole and midsole manufacturers have been using the same foam as a baseline for innovation. Today, advances in 3D printing have produced a new alternative material, created to improve performance and design flexibility at a cheaper cost.

While footwear manufacturing is one of many industries now readily using 3D printing, the requirements are unique. Unlike with cars, for instance, the production time for shoes is usually a matter of months rather than years; as a result, designers need to innovate quickly to satisfy trend-conscious consumers.

“I’ve witnessed a dramatically faster innovation cycle,” said Fabian Krauss, North American global business development manager at technology company EOS. “[Footwear] is less regulated, so there are not nearly as many qualification hurdles as in other industries, making it easier to go to market. But you see a high cost pressure from the very beginning.”

Previously, the cost of 3D-printed materials was a deterrent, especially if there was the risk of decreased performance. But the growth of athleticwear and performance footwear has encouraged leading sports brands to invest in product development. The new material must be able to handle high-impact exercise and support variations in user weight.

The result has led to a number of product styles, from the Adidas FutureCraft 4D to the New Balance TripleCell, that leverage the latest in 3D-printed midsole technology. Created in partnership with 3D-printing platforms Carbon and Formlabs, respectively, these shoes have each replaced the traditional foam midsole with a lattice structure that works to support the wearer during athletic activity.

The Adidas Alphaedge 4D Parley style uses ocean plastic and features the Carbon 3D-printed midsole.
CREDIT: Carbon

“Carbon DLS technology makes it possible to generate complex lattice geometries and designs with material properties that improve impact absorption, enhance protection and have the potential to reduce injury,” said a spokesperson for Carbon. “These are all highly relevant attributes for high-performance footwear.”

Where these items were once limited-edition or specialty products, industry executives believe the technology is ready to be scaled. Through platforms such as Formlabs, EOS and Carbon, brands can develop a custom midsole for their specific requirements and then either manufacture in-house or in partnership, depending on capabilities. Advances in the underlying 3D-printing and scanning technology have also reduced the cost of production.

The benefits of 3D-printing have already been seen in footwear with prototypes. The flexibility of manufacturing enables brands to adapt to changing customer demands quickly, while also minimizing product waste. When used to create end-product, the agility of the manufacturing tool also lends itself to customization and comfort products such as orthotics.

“One of the most important shifts within the manufacturing industry occurred when we went from the mass production of thousands of identical parts at a low cost per unit to mass customization, which we’re seeing with high-value products, such as dental,” said Jeff Boehm, global marketing lead at Formlabs.

EOS additive manufacturing is used in industries ranging from aerospace and medical to lifestyle products like footwear.

This is also being seen at Aetrex, which partnered with EOS to produce custom insoles and orthotics. Through the use of both 3D foot scans and 3D printers, Aetrex collects customers’ individual foot data and produces customized insoles within two weeks, which are then shipped directly to the customer. EOS’ Krauss believes this system is a big draw for brands.

“All companies have a digital strategy and part of the digital strategy is converting the data they’re gathering around the consumer into products,” said Krauss. “They do that in apparel, they do that in protective wear, and they do that with footwear. The 3D printing allows them to convert individual consumer data into individual products.”

The market for shoes that include 3D-printed components is limited to some of the biggest players in the space. However, now that working examples have been created — and have proven popular with consumers — a number of smaller brands have been encouraged to adopt the technology. Carbon is working to expand its vertical in sportswear innovation, following its Adidas partnership, while EOS has hinted at several product collaborations for 2020. At Formlabs, the focus is on expanding access to digital fabrication to more players, across all stages of the manufacturing process.

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