The notion of comfortable footwear has been redefined with the launch of the world’s first 3D-printed shoes. Adidas, together with 3D printer start-up company Carbon, revealed that the Futurecraft 4D is tailored to the wearer’s feet by using heat and light to mould liquid resin.
According to reports, the new product also marks a breakthrough in using 3D printing for mass production. High-volume production line or not, the new shoes still cost a small fortune. If you want the perfect fit, ask Cinderella if you can borrow her fairy godmother, or play slots online, and aim for the jackpot.
Tech Overcomes a Challenge
According to a statement from the companies, the idea for using the seemingly unlikely technology sprang from a challenge Adidas encountered when planning a new line of sporting footwear. The sportswear apparel brand wanted to design shoes that have variable properties right across their midsoles.
It wouldn’t be easy, though, as existing production techniques simply did not allow for it. In the statement, the company explained that compression- or injection-moulding midsoles in one piece meant there would be little to no variation across the part. The only alternative would be to have midsoles comprised of multiple parts.
However, that in itself would present challenges. The first was the amount of labour involved, and the second was the number of potential weak spots in a midsole made of various parts. It became obvious that the solution was to 3D print the midsoles.
How the Shoes Are Made
Even so, the new shoe line still would not be that easy to realise. 3D printing usually is used to create prototypes using inferior materials; production-quality elastomers required by the planned design are generally not available.
This was where Carbon came in. The Silicone Valley-based company developed factory-ready technology it called Digital Light Synthesis. The tech uses top-quality materials, streamlines the design-to-product process, and is capable of mass production.
The start-up company embraced the challenge set by Adidas. It wasted no time with a product development process that resulted in the major brand designing more than 50 different midsole lattices before settling on the one that eventually went into production. The cost of traditional development methods usually limits the brand to more or less 5 different designs.
The process, which used the same materials that would be used for the final product, also meant that the production team could start testing the component during the design phase. This had the benefit of streamlining the traditional process, and eliminating the need to build prototypes.
At the moment, customers upload data to a cloud service. From there, the data is used to print a pair of shoes that fit as comfortably and as perfectly as Cinderella’s glass slippers, while offering so much more in terms of performance and practicality.
This is liable to change. The technology and materials involved are sure to become more affordable over time, which would certainly help the major sportswear brand to realise its plan of a set-up in which customers enter a store, run on a treadmill, and get their perfect pair of shoes printed while they watch.
The Future of Production
The breakthrough in 3D printing technology means much more than just fancy footwear for the brand’s customers. It could also open the door to a whole new way of designing and manufacturing goods, at least according to Eric Liedtke.
The Adidas group executive board member in charge of its global brands said Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis meant past constraints were no more, as the production processes can become more flexible, and can be steered by customers’ data. He added that the new tech would not only change what is being made, but also the way in which it is being made. The possibilities really are endless.