1.1 - The new Challenge of 3D Printing Shoes


I was planning to write my coming post about mules as mentioned in some previous posts. Recently I read many interesting articles at this regard. I then decided to focus my attention on one of the very trending topics in Footwear business which is increasing my curiosity about: 3D printing shoes. I’m sure this post will grow up your interest in new developments of footwear industry. I apologize in advance for its necessary length.
Before going deep on the “hot topic” of this post, I would like to have a look at how traditionally shoe factories work. You can find many articles, posts and videos about this topic. Obviously I made the whole process quite easier than what’s in reality in order to facilitate understanding.

As everything to plan, the very first phase is to “invent” something. Shoe designers put their idea on a paper. I love this step meaning the creativity of these artists and the very birth of a shoe. I remember when I had the chance to go into a shoe design office: all those shoe draftings on the walls, those desks with pens and pencils, samples, etc. It was like being in the brain of the factory itself.

Once bosses approved the project drawn by the shoe designer and before starting producing thousands and thousands of that shoe, the drawing passes to the production unit aimed to make a Prototype. Here, artisans use their equipment and knowledge together with proper machines which nowadays have made their work easier.  However, the very first tool is a shoe-custom last from wood or plastic. Artisans use it to model leather and other materials to make shoes. In a shoe factory you may find billion of these shoe-customs according to volume of production, sizes, heel-weights, genre models. Once artisans made the prototype both by their own hands and some machine help, this item has to pass over the new approval by bosses and designers before starting the subsequent phase.

Let’s assume Prototype has been approved. Now it’s time to produce thousands of it to put in the market (meaning, first, figuring new runways and events out where to promote it). In this step machines support artisans in their daily work to increase production, quality and efficiency. I called this phase as “executive” due to the workings among colors, materials, men and machines, customs, heels, and further details.

Consider how crucial are every of these steps, particularly in terms of profit, work, intellectual property, production amounts, therefore costs and investments. What 3D machines “rub out” regards the third step (perhaps the second one, as well). This means rubbing out the related costs. Anyhow, how do 3D shoe-machines work? Basically, a 3D printing machine allows to create a 3D model with a CAD program, then a printable file is used to create a layer design which is printed afterwards. This machine build things “by depositing material, typically plastic or metal, layer by layer, until the prototype or final product is finished” (wired.com).

This new technology seems matching with new consumers’ preferences. Shoes are tailored for each person’s unique feet. Particularly for wide or thick feet is hard to find a suitable pair of shoes, due to the common sizing system is based on half-integer measurements (6, 6.5, 7, 7.5, etc.). 3D Printing solves all this. Instead of trying many pair of shoes box by box this technology allows the computer to “create an accurate 3D model of the person’s feet”. This information combined with further costumer’s details, such as weight, height, activities which the shoes is engaged for. After inputting all these data, the costumer must just wait for printing.

An increasing number of footwear companies is now using 3D printing technology (above all, Nike, Feetz, United Nude, Adidas, New Balance and Under Armour) to give customers their very personalized pair of shoes, made in store or on the spot.  Early this new technology was used just for rapid prototyping (wired.com). 
In the last twenty years the rapid advances of the so called “3Digital Accelerators” (processing power, storage and bandwidth) has developed this 3D printing as “a tool for manufacturing end-products, such as shoes, jewelry, and dresses (within fashion business). As seen above this technology can be particularly useful for therapeutic applications. This is the case, for example, of SOLS Systems which makes orthotic shoes to alleviate foot pain and improve comfort for customers. Additionally, Nike has introduced its new Nike Vapor Ultimate Cleat American football boot, which combines 3D knitting and 3D shoe printing to give players an athletic shoe that delivers both lightweight speed and strength.

Although the majority of shoes sold nowadays are traditionally-made, the 3D technology is globally advancing quickly on the international market according to its “add values”: “On-demand, anytime, anywhere, by anyone manufacturing.” (wired.com) As for any innovation even for 3D printing there are already some objections. Some experts in footwear production  in confirming the advantages by this tech as above listed use btw the cellphone metaphore to describe this new tech: “the 2016’s designs are similar to brick cellphone of yesteryear which was laborious and cucumbersome.”(highsnobiety.com). 

An example of very receptive shoe designer, the Italian Cristina Fraceschini, who soon became a Shapeways designer. Her peculiarity is the almost-sculpture heel as an intricate 3D printed nylon cover, combining metallic finish onto a plastic through high product pressure. (3DPrintingIndustry.com). Another advantage highlighted by this female shoe-designers by Fermo (Italy) regards the production amount: with 3D printing it’s possible to produce even one unique shoe – which was impossible in the past. An immediate result of this open-mindness by Cristina is that a lot of her shoes are exhibited in the contemporary section of Fermo’s Footwear Museum).   

This enthusiastic shoe designer declared: “I love playing and experimenting with materials and I believe that the Italian shoe industry needs to get on board and explore with next generation designs. It is time to take Italian shoe making traditions and creativity into the future of manufacturing.” 

The 3D printing has been just discovered. We can already note its pros and cons. Of course it will arise new issues, above all about the future of the traditional footwear market as well as new levels of intellectual property rights protection. My opinion is that we have still to discover a lot about 3D printing. Although traditional factories must be preserved we could deeply know and use potential advantages related to a balance between tradition and innovation in footwear production. The example of Cristina Franceschini may contribute in this direction.

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