As 3-D printing matures, shoe makers look to revamp their business models.

Few new technologies receive more intense interest than 3-D printing. The technology has some predicting that it will revolutionize manufacturing top to bottom, creating new, small-scale manufacturing with little waste.

That promise remains emergent. But it is taking shape. Some of the more intriguing examples come from shoe manufacturers. Nike used 3-D printing for a football cleat it announced in March. That cleat, the Vapor Laser Talon, used 3-D printing to prototype a lightweight plate attached to the shoe. Nike claims this new plate will mean better acceleration for football players who wear it. The company was able to manufacture the plates using 3-D printing as well.

Although Nike isn’t creating plates molded to the feet of individual players, rival shoe manufacturer New Balance is doing customization — not with football players, but with elite runners, as it pilots a 3-D printing process that it thinks could become a mainstream way to make customized running shoes. In January, a top middle-distance runner, Jack Bolas, raced in a New Balance shoe custom-made for his feet using a 3-D printing process.

To make the shoes, New Balance fit the runner with a pair of shoes that used sensors to record data as he ran under simulated race conditions. It also used a motion-capture system and force plates to measure how his feet behaved inside shoes. It took the data gathered from the sensors and created a custom-fit plate for track spikes that was made with a 3-D printer. The plates were attached to a standard upper.

Bolas finished fourth in his first race in the shoes, but told Wired that the shoes “gave me a much more natural feel.” New Balance created a video featuring snippets of the development process for the shoe. The company has since used the 3-D printing process to develop custom shoes for other athletes. It aims to make custom plates and midsoles available to consumers in some locations within five years, it told the Boston Globe.

Image courtesy of New Balance. Photography by Scott Zeuhlke.

A biomechanics researcher told the Globe that New Balance is the leader in using 3-D printing and design for shoes. New Balance hopes eventually to move away from mass production to on-demand, custom production. But as Paul Zipkin noted in an article in the Spring 2001 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, mass customization is difficult to pull off well, and tends to be costly.

Zipkin’s article is more than a decade old, but the costliness of customization still holds true for New Balance. It does not expect most people will want to spend the money to buy custom-made shoes. Certainly, if people need to go through the process of running around a track eight to 10 times in shoes that monitor their mechanics, that will slow the buying process.

Meanwhile, the emergence of relatively inexpensive 3-D printers aimed at home users holds the promise for user-driven innovations that will disrupt, remake and spawn businesses, as Jeroen P.J. de Jong and Erik de Brujn wrote in MIT SMR’s Winter 2013 issue.

There are already entrepreneurial fashion designers trying to leverage 3-D printing to build up their presence in the market. A French graduate student may have been the first person to create a shoe using 3-D printing, but others have followed. A Czech designer has prototyped some ideas for 3-D printed shoes. It’s hard to imagine anyone wearing some of these, but she claims they fit her feet.

Continuum, which calls itself the first collaborative fashion label, is using 3-D printing to allow for crowd-sourced fashion design, selling items in production runs of as few as one. It also sells a 3-D printed bikini ($250-$300) and jewelry. It offers women’s dress shoes, which run about $900 a pair.

Of course, prices will come down in time. Custom-made suits, long the province of a privileged few who could afford them, now are being churned out by e-commerce sites and pop-up shops. In the long term, there’s reason to think that shoes might go the same direction as suits.

1 Comment On: With 3-D Printing, the Shoe Really Fits

  • Paul Mulzoff | May 28, 2013

    I believe this is just another example of the evolution of data analytics being used to deliver a more targeted product to consumers. The need for producers to transform a the needs of consumers into a more customized product will in turn push the evolution of mass production into more industries. As robotics has revolutionized many manufacturing processes, such as automotive, the 3D print technology may revolutionize the apparel industry.

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