Like clockwork Nike has unveiled yet another piece of footwear that truly revolutionizes the athletic footwear industry. Last weekend Nike unveiled the Vapor Laser Talon for college football prospects to wear at the NFL Combine. The shoe is designed specifically to master the 40-yard dash; it weights a mere 5.6 ounces. But it isn’t the weight that is revolutionary it is the manufacturing process that changes everything. It is 3D printed.
For those of you not familiar with 3D Printing, it is a form of additive manufacturing technology where a three dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers. To make that a little simpler, imagine your common home inkjet printer. The ink cartridge moves back and forth across your paper creating a 2D image line-by-line, color-by-color. Now imagine that cartridge moving in 3D. As opposed to just moving horizontally across your paper it can also move vertically, essentially stacking the ink to create a 3D image. Now replace the ink with plastic, plaster, metal or polymers and you have a 3D printer.
What’s great about 3D printing is that it allows for you to examine designed objects in a quick way. You don’t have to open a mold, that has a high cost to create and even higher cost to change and takes a lot of time, you can just use the CAD file you have already created of your design and click print. 3D printing speeds the creation process up by allowing you to truly examine your design in life size within hours as opposed to weeks.
How does this influence the shoe industry? Dramatically. So dramatic that I have compiled a list, in no particular order, of what I think it can provide.
The most expensive part of your shoe is the sole unit. Often it is comprised of multiple pieces that all need an individual mold to make. Lets use the Lebron X as an example. I have counted five pieces that all require a separate mold for its sole unit. The rubber, the zoom air bag, the zoom air unit, the midsole and the acrylic jewel on the midsole. Now take those five pieces and multiply them across the 12 adult sizes, not including half sizes because you can use the same mold, and you have 60 molds. I have been out of the costing game too long to know how much a mold costs but on the low end $1,000 a mold isn’t out of the realm. More then likely it’s much higher though. With 3D printing you completely get rid of all of those molds and all of that cost.
Another thing to keep in mind is that for all of those molds you have to have a worker manning the machine. If you get rid of molds you can get rid of workers thus taking down your production cost. You will also increase speed of manufacturing because you won’t have down time between taking a piece out of the mold and reloading the mold. On top of that you can be printing multiple pieces of the same part at the same time. Therefore speeding up the process and amount produced.
Ease of production location
Some people are predicting 3D Printing to be the next industrial revolution and could ultimately bring mass produced production back to rich nations like the good old United States of America. While this would be amazing to bring jobs back to the US and have more American made products the key thing about 3D manufacturing is that it can be set up anywhere.
I discussed it in my piece on FlyKnit last year but I think it applies to this as well. The idea is that you could set up print centers, like a much more technical Staples (which they are already preparing for), near an area where there is high demand. Imagine if during last years Olympics there where 3D Printing stations that were facilitating all of the manufacturing of the shoes being sold in London during the games. Nike would get rid of all shipping costs and could also source all local materials that would boost the local economy. It could do a lot for big corporations and small businesses.
Combined with FlyKnit and you literally have a fully digital printed shoe
3D Printing is very similar to how the FlyKnit uppers are created. Both feature a technique that takes the manufacturing off the line. I truly believe that once this process of these two techniques is perfected in the coming years, you will be able to combine them and have little to no labor costs. I imagine that you can have the uppers knitted in one area of the factory, once they are finished and then inspected, they will be lasted and then placed in the 3D Printer. The 3D Printer will then directly print on to the upper of the shoe. The sole unit would literally grow from the upper thus making it a true extension of your body.
There will be a few key things for this scenario to come to life and the most important factor being the advancement of printed materials. Right now the materials are hard and somewhat stiff. That’s why it wasn’t shocking to see the first 3D Printed sole unit be on a cleated project. Going forward soft materials that have cushioning properties will need to be developed. I am sure we are not far from this being a reality. Check out this video of a 3D Printed ear:
If we can print a living cell, I am pretty confident we can figure out how to make a midsole that is soft and gives energy return. Or judging by that video we can just grow a shoe from our foot. Could be kind of dope.
Creates the opportunity for bespoke design
Nike ID already provides you with the opportunity to create your version of their footwear line up. We have seen amazing results from this but with 3D Printing you could literally create your own shoe. You could create a shoe that is the dopest aesthetic possible. Anything you can imagine could be created or you could solve a problem. Maybe you are a heavy pronator but you want a lightweight shoe. You could create a shoe that has a heel counter that is designed particularly to the shape of your Achilles. The opportunities to improve performance and create a one to one fit are endless with 3D Printing.
It opens doors
The most important thing I can think this process does is creating acceptance for 3D Printed products. To this point we have yet to see 3D Printed products that have been sold in the footwear marketplace. I truly believe that this product being sold in the open market is not only ground breaking for footwear but for all products. This shows what can be done with the technology and that it can be durable and last. If it can handle the rigors of the beating a football player puts on it, it can handle the use of the average consumer.
One key thing this does is opens the door for smaller footwear companies and in particular start up footwear companies. For years I have wanted to create my own shoe and the only logical way I could think of affording it is through 3D Printing. This completely opens the door for not only me but also 1,000’s of other designers with ambitions of creating their own vision. Once more 3D Printers become accessible the cost will come down even more and allow many to create a product that once was not able to happen because of the high startup cost. I don’t know if this is what Nike intended to have happen but I thank them for opening yet another door for many designers.