Under Armor and Reebok have used 3D-printing technology in the past to design a few components of a shoe, and for preliminary production stages such as footwear design and prototyping. Now, more than a dozen footwear companies are adopting 3D printing to create an entire shoe, from start to finish. The competition in the industry has many competitors, some of which are developing their own solutions and others that are turning to solution providers to get in the shoe-printing game. The goal for all of them is to utilize 3D printing to manufacture eye-catching, comfortable, personalized footwear.
One of the dynamic trends of 3D printing in the footwear industry is that each company has adopted its own unique type of 3D printing technology, using it at different stages of the design, prototyping and manufacturing stages. Based on the design engineering and 3D techniques put into action, prices for the customized finished products—which include shoes, insoles and sandals—differ significantly among the different shoe brands.
Some of the leaders in using 3D printing include established brands such as Reebok and HP (with its new FitStation platform), along with younger startup companies such as solution provider Jabil (working with Superfeet), SOLS and Feetz.
Reebok Robotics System Prints Outsoles
Reebok has developed its own Liquid Factory 3D printing technology to jumpstart a new process in shoe manufacturing. To construct its 3D printed shoes, Reebok designed a robotic manufacturing system capable of drawing polyurethane in a specific pattern that forms an outsole. Reebok’s Liquid Speed shoe line features a 3D-printed polyurethane outsole that wraps from the underside of the shoe to form the shoe’s lacing system.
Photo: Reebok Liquid Factory
According to a report in Engineering.com, Reebok plans to expand its 3D-printing work so it can produce these shoe components locally for its distributors, and eventually move away from the traditional shoe manufacturing system.
HP FitStation Taps MJF
HP has stepped into custom footwear with its HP FitStation. HP’s niche centers on creating customized footwear that is specifically tailored for each person’s foot dimensions and associated shoe needs. The HP FitStation is a hardware and software platform that creates a digital profile for each foot based on calculated foot pressure and determined gait analysis. Based on the digital profile, customers are able to purchase tailored shoes comprised of 3D-print insoles and footwear. For this process, HP uses its Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) 3D printing platform.
Photo: HP FitStation
“FitStation is a truly disruptive platform that will improves people’s lives and change the way people purchase footwear and shoe insoles,” says Louis Kim, Global Head of Immersive Computing, Personal Systems, HP Inc, in a statement. “We are reinventing the footwear shopping experience, bringing a new level of customization and personalization. We are stitching HP’s capabilities in 3D scanning and 3D printing to bring this blended reality vision to life.” He adds that HP is working with leading partners within the footwear industry to expand its FitStation platform.
Jabil Adds 3D to Superfeet
Solution providers are often called into play to help manufacturers design 3D printing systems. One such company, global manufacturing and design firm Jabil, has been adopting big data and design technologies, including 3D printing, to help its clients stay ahead on the game and operate with new business models. Founded in Michigan 50 years ago as a small company with a focus on automotive parts manufacturing, Jabil is now based in St. Petersburg, FL.
In the footwear industry, Jabil developed the process of making custom insoles for Superfeet. For that project, Jabil took advantage of digital prototyping capabilities with its 3D printers to produce 40 product prototypes in just four months.
SOLS Focuses on Custom Insoles
SOLS was one of the first companies to step into the manufacture of printed footwear. A startup company based in New York, SOLS creates individualized insoles based on pre-programmed algorithms that utilize photos of feet, with the help of a consumer’s smartphone application. Using information derived from the app, the nylon-based insoles are created by a 3D printer using selective laser sintering. The innovative technique led to the purchase of SOLS by Aetrex Worldwide in March 2017.
Feetz and Photogrammetry
Based in San Diego, Feetz is one of the most specialized companies in this field, producing shoes that are 100 percent 3D printed (most other companies only produce a portion of the shoe using a 3D printer). The size and custom fit of shoes produced by Feetz are based on photogrammetry, along with the use of a smartphone application. Feetz has developed its own version of Fused Filament Fabrication technology that uses Flexknit™ Polymer. The Feetz shoes are 3D printed to a buyer’s foot with 22 points of fit. The buyer can also choose the shoe’s color, style and logos.
Feetz is also one of the most sustainable footwear companies, as its shoes are printed out of recyclable materials and require zero water to produce, which reduces the company’s carbon footprint by 60 percent.
Get in Stride with 3D Printing