3-D printing has long been seen as a tool for making small tools for personal use, but some large retailers and smaller-scale businesses have started to delve into using 3-D printing for mass-market distribution of customized products.
For their first products, they’ve started on the ground level – literally.
Customized shoe insoles and orthotics are among the newest products to be created using 3-D printing machines, and companies such as Nike and New Balance have partnered with technology companies to create 3-D-printed performance athletic shoes, some of which could be released later this year.
Other smaller companies, such as Vancouver-based Wiivv and New York City-based Sols, have tapped into the orthotics market, working with doctors to provide insoles customized to patients’ feet.
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So far, New Balance and Adidas have announced they’re working on making customized midsoles for upcoming products, and Nike said it’s also tinkering with 3-D printing.
Having the ability to customize insoles gives these footwear companies a way into a multi-billion-dollar market. According to research released in July 2015 by market research firm IndustryARC, the foot orthotics industry was estimated at $2.5 billion in 2014 and is expected to hit $3.5 billion by 2020, with some of that growth being attributed to the recent rise in 3-D printing applications.
But 3-D printing may open more doors for these companies than just the ability to customize insoles.
The most exciting part of the enterprise is the implications for how companies will build and distribute footwear, said Sols CEO Kegan Schouwenburg.
Sols and Wiivv, for example, use a type of 3-D printing called selective laser sintering (SLS) that melts the design of the insole into a layer of powdered plastic. The insole is then excavated out of the powder. Both companies are taking pre-orders for consumer products that aim to reduce or eliminate foot pain when running, hiking or walking – or even when working jobs that require a lot of standing.
Schouwenburg said the process is significantly more affordable than the traditional method of customizing insoles, which is by hand using a cast of one person’s foot as a guide. The 3-D printer lets retailers get away from injection molding, a common way for companies to mass-produce insoles but one that allows for little customization.
She said 3-D printing has the potential to create products when the customer orders them, rather than making them in many sizes and with piles of waste fabric left over.
“It'll be amazing. We'll see impact on the supply chain,” Schouwenburg said of the longterm potential of 3-D printing in manufacturing. “We won’t have overstock. We won’t have waste. Products will be made on demand.”
Nike COO Eric Sprunk discussed the possibility of on-demand shoes at a GeekWire Summit talk last fall, mostly discussing how a version of 3-D printing is being used to make the brand’s Flyknit Lunar shoes.
‘Almost zero waste’
“This is a file we send on the computer … We send the file, we send it to the knit machine, the operator of the knit machine can operate many knit machines, he hits it into the knit machine and out comes a shoe,” Sprunk said.
“There’s almost zero waste. The amount of waste from this shoe can fit literally in a thimble. It’s just leftover thread,” Sprunk added. “The amount of waste of an Air Force One or the shoe I have on my foot, which is made by stitching pieces together, cutting them with dyes, the waste that hits the factory floor – this eliminates all of that.”
Some companies are talking about the possibility of having insoles, or even entire shoes, printed from stores or through at-home machines. That day hasn’t come yet – even companies selling custom insoles manufacture the items in their own facilities – but it may be on the horizon.
“Do I envision a future where we might still own the file from an IP perspective … and you can either manufacture that in your home or we will do it for you at our store?” Sprunk said in a talk at GeekWire Summit. “Oh yeah, that’s not that far away.”
This year, New Balance CEO Robert DeMartini said his company is working on a limited release of 3-D-printed running shoes in April in Boston – albeit, non-customized ones – and believes customized shoes could one day be printed at home.
“But it’s really just the beginning,” DeMartini said. “As personalization takes the next step, and as the 3-D ecosystem gains steam, we’re envisioning being able to print these in store or in consumers’ homes.”
However, large companies such as New Balance, Nike and Adidas do face a scaling problem.
3-D technology currently works best on a small scale, and there’s a significant difference between making millions of the same shoe verses making millions of shoes with a customized component, Sols’s Schouwenburg said.
“I think it'll be a while before it exists at that level,” she said. “We’re not at a point yet where the margins make sense.”