New Stamping Ground for Nike and Adidas as 3D Shoes Kick Off
Nike and Adidas are embracing 3D printing to speed up the shoemaking process, using the technology to make multiple prototype versions at a previously impossible speed.
While 3D printing has generated hype over potential home use – including gun making – it is becoming an important complement to the multinationals’ labour-intensive Asian factories.
3D printers lay down particles of plastic, metal or even wood in thin layers that build up into solid objects. The footwear makers are using them to print and modify prototype plastic soles with studs, or cleats, for football and running shoes.
Shane Kohatsu, innovation director at Nike’s Oregon headquarters, told the Financial Times that 3D printing had accelerated development of its Vapor Laser Talon boot for professional American footballers.
“Within six months we were able to go through 12 rounds of prototype iterations that we fully tested, and ultimately we were able to make super dramatic improvements to our products,” he said.
The sole is made of solid nylon. With traditional injection moulding techniques, whereby molten plastic is injected into a steel mould, Nike would typically update complex product parts such as studs “every couple of years”, Mr Kohatsu said.
Germany’s Adidas said 3D printers had reduced the time it needed to evaluate a new prototype by four to six weeks to one or two days.
Before the advent of 3D printing, Adidas prototypes were handmade by 12 technicians. With the new technology, no more than two people are required to produce them.
In sports footwear, innovations typically come on the bottom of the shoe – as with the air-cushioned Nike Air range introduced in the 1980s, and the bouncy foam-based Boost running shoe that Adidas launched this year.
With 3D printing – also called additive manufacturing – shoe makers are exploiting technological advances that were driven by heavy industries such as aerospace.
3D printing is already being used to make personalised hearing aids and hip replacements. It could conceivably be used for individually tailored shoes.
The shoe companies have not put a price tag on 3D-printed shoes as none are yet being sold to consumers.
The three biggest makers of 3D printers are EOS of Germany, the US’s 3D Systems, and a US-Israeli company Stratasys, which has a client roster that includes Reebok, New Balance and Under Armour as well as Nike and Adidas.
Bruce Bradshaw, director of marketing at Stratasys, said mass shoe production via 3D printing itself was some way off, but added: “Will they get there? Absolutely.”
The main limitation at present is the slow speed of printing: it would take a Stratasys machine about two hours to produce a single sole.
“What’s really intriguing for us is not the volumes that you can make. It’s really more how rapidly you can make changes,” said Nike’s Mr Kohatsu.