HP Steps into Custom Footwear with 3D Printing, Scanning
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on September 07, 2017 | 7190 views

After making a splash and swimming around a bit with its Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) 3D printing technology, HP is now stepping into the custom footwear race with a new 3D scanning solution dubbed the FitStation. Once the FitStation is used to create custom insoles, these orthotics are then 3D printed with MJF.

The FitStation powered by HP. (Image courtesy of HP.)
3D scanning of the foot, part of the FitStation, powered by HP. (Image courtesy of HP.)

HP isn’t racing alone in the custom footwear market. Multiple large manufacturers, such as Nike and Adidas, are 3D printing shoe soles, while a number of startups, including Feetz and Wiiv Wearables, are working on products ranging from 3D-printed shoes to sandals.

What’s HP’s position in the race? Let’s look at how HP compares to its competitors.

HP

HP’s FitStation is a hardware and software platform that first 3D scans a person’s foot, measures foot pressure and performs gait analysis to create a “digital profile” of each foot. This makes it possible to then 3D print insoles and create custom footwear. The footwear can then be 3D printed on HP’s MJF platform.

How the 3D scanning to 3D printing process works. (Image courtesy of HP.)
How the 3D scanning to 3D printing process works. (Image courtesy of HP.)

The solution will be deployed at 4,000 retail locations through Superfeet, an over-the-counter insoles company. Additionally, safety shoe manufacturer Steitz Secura will use the FitStation for its comfort, preventive health and safety operations.

The FitStation setup from Superfeet in one retail location. (Image courtesy of HP.)
The FitStation setup from Superfeet in one retail location. (Image courtesy of HP.)

SOLS

Among the first companies to hit the track was SOLS, a New York-based startup that produces custom insoles created through photogrammetric algorithms that convert photos taken of feet with a smartphone app. These orthotics are then 3D printed from nylon using selective laser sintering (SLS).

Though it was early in the game, SOLS laid off 20 percent of its staff in January 2016 and was ultimately acquired by Aetrex Worldwide, another custom orthotics and shoe manufacturer, in March 2017. Aetrex, based in New Jersey, is using the acquisition to complement its own foot scanning technology. However, if you look at the company’s social media presence, you’ll see that nothing much has been posted since June 2017.

Wiivv Wearables

Wiivv is newer to the track, but has proven successful after launching what was at one time considered the most successful 3D-printed product on Kickstarter, also a 3D-printed insole created through photogrammetry and a smartphone app. Like SOLS insoles, Wiivv’s wearables are 3D printed with SLS.

Wiivv’s sandals feature 3D-printed arches. (Image courtesy of Wiivv Wearables.)
Wiivv’s sandals feature 3D-printed arches. (Image courtesy of Wiivv Wearables.)

Wiivv has since leapt forward to 3D-printed sandals. At about the same time that SOLS was being purchased by Aetrex, Wiivv was launching its 3D printed sandal line on Kickstarter, which also was successfully funded at over $500,000.

Feetz

Feetz is a unique case in that the San Diego-based startup is 3D printing complete shoes. Like the aforementioned products, sizing is determined through photogrammetry and a smartphone app. The shoe is then 3D printed on fused filament fabrication (FFF) 3D printers using recycled material. Once a wearer wants to throw out the pair, they can send them back to the company, which recycles the material for subsequent shoes. According to the company, Feetz “products require zero water, are made using recycled and recyclable materials, reducing our carbon footprint by 60%.

Feetz uses 3D printing to create everything from the midsole to the upper. (Image courtesy of Feetz.)
Feetz uses 3D printing to create everything from the midsole to the upper. (Image courtesy of Feetz.)

In Fall 2016, Feetz partnered with shoe retailer DWS to produce custom shoes at pop-up locations in DSW’s NYC 34th St and SF Union square locations. More recently, the startup worked with two-time Project Runway winner Seth Aaron to launch the first 3D-printed designer shoe line at FashioNXT Week this fall.

Under Armour

As we begin discussing large shoe manufacturers, it’s important to note that nearly all of these companies have been using 3D printing for in-house prototyping and design for some time. Only in the past few years have they begun fabricating end products with 3D-printed parts.

Under Armour has experimented with 3D printing with the UA Architech, a limited edition shoe line with 3D-printed soles. In spring 2017, the company announced that it was further exploring shoes with 3D-printed soles with the Futurist line. The shoe features a sole designed with a weight-saving lattice structure 3D printed from thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) developed by Lehmann&Voss&Co. on Under Armour’s SLS machines.

The 3D-printed TPU heel on the Futurist is meant to provide support and spring. (Image courtesy of Under Armour.)
The 3D-printed TPU heel on the Futurist is meant to provide support and spring. (Image courtesy of Under Armour.)

Priced at $300, the shoe series was Under Armour’s most expensive to date, as well as its largest batch of shoes with 3D-printed parts. With each shoe series, Under Armour has quadrupled production, starting with 96 pairs for the original Architech, followed by 410 for the next 3D-printed shoe series. The company manufactured the Futurist in a batch of a little over 2,000 pairs this past March.

Adidas

After Adidas brought its first shoe with 3D-printed parts, the 3D Runner, to market in December 2016, it decided to expand the effort and pass Under Armour in the race. Not only was Adidas moving from SLS to an exciting new technology, but it also was aiming for mass production. Earlier this year, Adidas announced that it would be using Carbon’s ultra-fast continuous digital light projection (cDLP) 3D-printing technique to mass produce the soles of its Futurecraft 4D shoes.

The Futurecraft 4D shoe, which features a 3D-printed midsole made using Carbon technology. (Image courtesy of Adidas.)
The Futurecraft 4D shoe, which features a 3D-printed midsole made using Carbon technology. (Image courtesy of Adidas.)

Though the shoes are not tailored to the wearer’s feet, the plan is to eventually introduce customization. The company began with 300 pairs of Futurecraft 4D shoes this spring and is aiming for 5,000 pairs this fall or winter before mass producing more than 100,000 pairs by the end of 2018. If the company can accomplish this, it would be the first mass-produced shoe line featuring 3D-printed components to hit the market.

Reebok

Reebok paces right alongside Adidas and Under Armour, but not just by 3D printing shoe components. It is inventing its own 3D-printing technology. Reebok’s Liquid Speed shoe line features a polyurethane outsole that wraps from the underside of the shoe to form the shoe’s lacing system.

To create the piece, the company developed a robotic system that draws polyurethane in the proper pattern. Last year, the company sold 300 pairs. Reebok plans to expand this work so that it can produce these shoe components locally to its distributors and eventually move away from the traditional shoe manufacturing system.

New Balance

When it comes to corporate players, New Balance was one of the earliest to adopt 3D printing to create midsoles. The company first used SLS to test out the technique and later considered mass producing midsoles using high speed sintering (HSS), a 3D-printing technology that uses infrared light to sinter particles together. If infrared sintering sounds familiar, that’s because HP’s MJF also relies on infrared lamps to sintering particles together. Unlike HSS, MJF also uses a specialty detailing agent in the 3D printing process, which introduces the possibility of functional inks for printing conductive material, different colors and more.

A shoe with a heel made with HSS. (Image courtesy of Loughborough University.)
A shoe with a heel made with HSS. (Image courtesy of Loughborough University.)

New Balance ultimately partnered with 3D Systems to use SLS and produce the first commercially available running shoe with 3D-printed parts, the Zante Generate. The midsole, printed in TPU, features a unique, organic design created by 3D-printing design studio Nervous System. The company began with 44 pairs of the specialty sneakers, but plans to release customized versions at some point this year.

The Zante Generate from New Balance with 3D-printed midsoles released by New Balance in 2016. (Image courtesy of New Balance.)
The Zante Generate from New Balance with 3D-printed midsoles released by New Balance in 2016. (Image courtesy of New Balance.)

Nike

Nike entered the 3D-printing race in 2013 with the Vapor Laser Talon, which was prototyped using 3D printing. With a functional nylon plate and traction system 3D printed using SLS, 3D printing allowed Nike to reduce weight and speed up the design. The resulting cleat was reported to be one of the fastest cleats yet designed and seven of the 10 fastest athletes at 2013 NFL Combine opted to wear it.

The Vapor Carbon Elite Cleat prototyped with 3D printing. (Image courtesy of Nike.)
The Vapor Carbon Elite Cleat prototyped with 3D printing. (Image courtesy of Nike.)

The company went on to produce the Vapor HyperAgility Cleat and later the Vapor Carbon Elite Cleat using 3D printing during the prototyping phase.

When HP entered the 3D printing industry with its MJF printers, it carried a number of big names as partners in tow, such as BMW and Johnson & Johnson. Among those partners was Nike. How exactly the company is using MJF is unclear, but after years of prototyping with SLS, it seems like it should be about time that they begin producing end parts to maintain a neck-and-neck pace with the rest.

What’s the Deal with 3D-Printed Footwear?

If you believe the marketing, 3D-printed footwear is the next big thing and, while there are products on the market, 3D-printed shoes and insoles are far from mass adoption. Part of the reason these products seem so appealing to businesses such as New Balance and Under Armour, in addition to the hype-ability, is the fact that 3D printing midsoles and insoles is a relatively simple way to introduce 3D printing and mass customization to the marketplace.

It’s still difficult to 3D print an entire shoe and maintain a sleek appearance and comfort (just ask Feetz), but 3D printing a midsole is not as difficult since it resides on the outside of the shoe. At the same time, it’s possible to introduce weight savings and unique design features to this part of the shoe, such as lattice structures that may use less material, but also provide better cushioning and, possibly, performance.

For this reason, the big shoe companies are exploring the technology. It allows them to put skin in the game, test the marketplace and explore the possibility of mass production.

Insoles take the benefits of 3D printing one step further by making it possible to manufacture products tailored to a customer’s feet. This goes beyond the one-size-fits-all approach currently seen in the world of manufacturing, not just with shoes but also with cars and headphones and everything you can imagine. Futurists and 3D-printing aficionados are expecting a day in which every product will be tailored to the consumer and produced in mass, a concept referred to as “mass customization.”

You’ll note from this article that SLS is one of the top technologies chosen for these experiments in mass customization. SLS has a high throughput and uses engineering-grade material like nylon and TPU, making it the chosen technology for batch production by 3D-printing service bureaus for years.

However, more recently, new technologies have entered their own race for highest throughput as a means of kicking open the doors of the $13 trillion manufacturing industry to 3D printing and, therefore, mass customization. Adidas, for instance, has chosen Carbon’s version of cDLP for its speed and material. MJF also is appealing for mass customization, as it is marketed to be 10 times faster than SLS.

Currently, traditional consumer products like athletic wear are made for a very low cost by leveraging workers in developing nations who work for low pay and often in unsafe conditions. Despite the widespread knowledge of these practices, many manufacturers continue to engage in these highly problematic supply chains.

Another dream of 3D printing as a technology for end production is the ability to re-localize manufacturing, reducing costs to the point that businesses are incentivized to move away from sweatshop labor. Whether or not this is possible without also introducing regulations and trade deals that mandate humane working conditions and pay is a different topic, but not one that should go ignored as companies hype new technologies and products with various marketing-friendly rationales, such as re-localization. 

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