In the not-too-distant future, a trip to the shoe store might look very different. It might begin with photographs being taken of your foot, and a 3D rendering of it popping up on a screen along with your measurements, and any subtle differences in morphology of each foot. You might be asked to run on a platform that gauges your stride. You might also be asked what type of activity you plan to use the shoe for, whether you have orthotic requirements and your design preferences. All that will go into making you a unique pair of footwear, ready within hours.
Shoe makers have been experimenting with customized prototypes using 3D printing technology, but there are plenty of hurdles ahead before a model that’s entirely 3D printed is available to the mass market.
For now, the big athletic footwear brands are tinkering with 3D-printed midsoles, jockeying to get their version out to consumers ahead of the competition.
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“Fundamentally, we believe this will change the way footwear is manufactured,” said Chris Lindgren, vice-president of outdoor and training footwear at Under Armour, which recently released Architech, a limited-edition trainer with a 3D-printed latticed midsole. “This really unlocks customization on a mass scale,” Lindgren said.
At this stage, the costs are prohibitive for even the largest shoe manufacturers to outfit their factories with 3D printers and the technology is still evolving, making it rare to find smaller companies innovating in this way.
Montreal–based Genfoot Inc., which makes the Kamik brand of outdoor footwear, is an exception. Joe Bichai, Genfoot’s vice-president of manufacturing, is hoping that 3D printing will one day lead to cost reductions and a faster launch of new products.
As a domestic manufacturer, Genfoot is already at a cost disadvantage. At its Montreal factory, 10 injection-moulding machines (each costs $600,000) operate around the clock, fusing soles and uppers without stitching. Each machine can churn out 13,000 pairs a week. The facility produces about four million pairs of shoes a year, indicative of the sheer scale of its operations.
“The day you’ll be able to go on our website and order your personalized pair of boots is really around the corner,” Bichai said, noting the company is working with a 3D printer in Italy that can have samples ready in a week.
“Before this technology becomes accessible and available and justified for mass producers, we’ll have to wait,” said Bichai, adding he is happy to let companies such as Under Armour, Adidas and Nike lead the way in developing the technology.
They don’t have to acquire the technology. They just have to have a really great design logic.
3D Systems, a company based in Rock Hill, South Carolina that engineers, manufactures and sells 3D printers and claims to have invented 3D printing, is working with all the major running shoe brands, and Cathy Lewis, executive vice-president and chief marketing officer of the company, said they are all eager to hand athletes their version of the Holy Grail.
“The thing that they all tell us they would like to do some day is to fully 3D print the shoe, mixing materials and customizing it for an athlete,” she said. “We would tell you that’s two years out.”
Under Armour’s Lindgren is more conservative in his prediction: He contends the full shoe is still at least five years out, partly because 3D printing is still an experiment happening in stages. As companies begin to finesse a 3D-printed upper, the technology isn’t quite ready for them to print it simultaneously with the sole.
Despite Bichai’s reality check, Lewis contends smaller players won’t be left on the sidelines. “They don’t have to acquire the technology. They just have to have a really great design logic,” she said.
Bichai agrees there’s a lucrative market opportunity in 3D printing, especially as costs come down and margins expand. Customers may initially pay a premium, but Bichai contends customers who value customization will gradually ignore the price differential.
As an example, Bichai said a customer would likely balk at paying $500 for a customized shoe over a pre-designed version at $129. “But if it’s $129 retail for a standard boot and maybe $199 for a customized one, the difference makes it more attractive,” he said.
Bichai estimates it would now cost $400 to produce a 3D-printed shoe and he would need to sell it for twice that amount to make the endeavour worthwhile, an unlikely proposition to consumers unless he can halve that.