Is 3D Printing Solving A Real Need?

Is 3D Printing Solving A Real Need?

With the recent release of several footwear concepts featuring 3D printed components, I have been asking myself if this is really the future of shoes.  Nike, Adidas, New Balance, and now Under Armour are all flexing their additive manufacturing muscles, but I’m skeptical as to whether all the hype isn’t much more than a marketing stunt.

Certainly it’s clear that this technology isn’t going to be a mainstream manufacturing platform for a while, (if ever, for this industry) but it’s push for adoption does reveal several interesting insights into the challenges these elite brands are trying to solve.

For decades the footwear industry has been eager to adopt new technologies that reduce the amount of manual labor, with Flyknit making the biggest splash with its circular weaving technology which has minimized the need for stitching. While additive manufacturing utilizes machines rather than people, it’s interesting that these brands are focusing on midsoles, the least labor-intensive aspect of shoe making. I feel that the focus of autonomy should be placed on upper construction and rapid assembly technologies, which currently require much more time and manual labor.

Additionally, footwear companies are striving to decentralize manufacturing and bring it closer to the end consumer. In order for manufacturing to come back to the United States, we will have to completely revolutionize the way footwear is made but keep the cost the same.

While brands want to cut down on labor costs, consumers want to express their individuality. With the growing popularity of limited edition models, customization is top of mind for many executives. It’s apparent that mass manufacturing is on it’s way out. Given this design trend, what are consumers craving most?

It seems as if color and styling are the key differentiators for consumers rather than performance improvements.  One of the key features that many reference when speaking of 3D printing and footwear is the ability to create a custom fit and match the cushioning profile with that of an individual. Although very novel, I don’t see it gaining traction with the current customer base. Instead, the technology is much better equipped to produce intriguing hardware, textures, and styling accessories rather than use as a cushioning component. At scale Injection molding is much cheaper and it is so challenging to augment the feeling of foam. Adidas has tried to do so by introducing mechanical cushioning solutions which never have really been embraced.

Although 3D printing technology is developing at an exponential rate, my hunch is footwear is not an early adopter of this production means. Generally, technology is adopted when it significantly improves something. Rarely does it gain mass adoption when merely for novelty sake. As a rule of thumb for mass adoption, a technology has to be five times better than existing technology. I don’t see that being the case here.

The truth is footwear manufacturing is ripe for disruption. Although I feel that 3D is a bunch of hype, I am excited the see an effort toward exploring new alternatives. I am most enthusiastic about several new technologies that I have been exposed to that would allow shoes to be assembled in a few seconds and have a footprint no larger than your local bakery. If anything is certain it’s that the future will be exciting!

What do you think?

Does 3D printing have any merit in the footwear industry? In the future will our shoes be printed? Why is there such a race among the top brands utilize this technology? Reply below in the comments section.

– Brent James Founder at Concept 21

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