3D Printed Footwear

Shoe 3D printing was probably the very first application to drive the imagination of a wider demographic of people, envisioning the idea of ready-to-wear 3D-printed products. Led by Janne Kyttanen over a decade ago, visionaries, designers and artists have experimented with 3D printed footwear at many levels, using a variety of technologies, since the early 2010s (some even earlier). At the same time, the use of 3D printing for shoe prototyping is a well-established practice in the footwear industry and has recently been booming in Asia, as has the use of AM for producing molds, patterns and even lasts used in shoe parts production.

However, it was not until recently that AM technologies became productive and cost-effective enough to enable mass production of accessible end-use products. In fact, mid-soles are the very first consumer product that is already being mass-produced today while in-soles are the first product that—to a certain extent—is being mass customized. These two main trends—along with explosive adoption of AM in prototyping and mold production—are going to be the key elements driving the industry for the foreseeable future, as 3D printing makes its way in the $400-billion global footwear market.

The global footwear industry generated revenues of about $260 billion in 2018 and is expected to grow at around 4% CAGR for the next ten years, totaling around $400 billion by 2029. The segment is mature and growing steadily as hundreds of millions of people around the world—especially in emerging economies—are now able to afford quality footwear.

Within this scenario, AM is expected to play an increasingly important role on several fronts. These include increased adoption in segments where the benefits of AM are consolidated, such as prototyping and indirect manufacturing (i.e. 3D printing of molds and cast patterns for mold production), as well as increased automation for mass production of shoes and other footwear products.

Key 3D printed footwear trends

The trends that are driving the footwear industry toward a larger adoption of additive manufacturing are first and foremost tied to the idea of the underlying macrotrend of increased personalization of all consumer products, from automobiles to jewelry. Today, this is still in a very early phase, where brands—thus uniformity—are still considered more valuable than custom-made products by the majority of global consumers. Younger and future generations are now beginning to place more value on custom-made products, especially as these become actually available.

At the same time, AM is also driving a push toward increased automation by further digitalizing the current high-labor intensive shoe-making process. As these two trends—customization and digital automation—come together, they will usher in the macrotrend of mass customization. Footwear is expected to be one of the first family of consumer products where this transition will take place.

Mass customized orthopedic insoles and sandals

The first footwear products to be produced by additive manufacturing were orthopedic insoles. These are insoles for shoes, boots and even sporting footwear products, that ensure increased comfort by perfectly adapting to the foot’s geometry and the user’s gait. Evolution of basic insole products led a number of companies to introduce 3D-printed orthotics, ensuring even more accurate and effective support, or 3D-printed custom sandals.

Mass-produced midsoles

Midsoles became one of the most significant cases of mass production via additive manufacturing. After a number of attempts and R&D experiments, adidas and Carbon developed a workflow for cost-effectively 3D printing hundreds of thousands of footwear midsoles. These currently leverage lattice geometries that are optimized for AM but in the future could also integrate a degree of customization.

Limited editions

While large batch production remains a long-term goal, short batch production for limited editions is already increasingly possible through AM. This takes place both through direct additive manufacturing of shoe final parts or through accelerating traditional workflows by adding AM for faster and more cost-effective prototyping and mold-making.

Designer and luxury products

Similarly, 3D printing has already been used for a number of highly experimental and artistic designer footwear products, ranging from entire shoes to custom sculpted heels. Fashion designer Iris Van Herpen has often used 3D printing for both clothing and footwear as have a number of other designers such as Zaha Hadid, Ben van Berkel, Fernando Romero, Ross Lovegrove, Michael Young, Bryan Oknyansky, Gait Goldstein, Cristina Franceschini and several more.

Mass-produced uppers

A few major firms are also working to implement 3D printing technologies in the production of footwear uppers, which is the most labor-intensive in the entire footwear production workflow. This is generally achieved through the extrusion of polyurethane materials along with automated knitting or textile cutting process.

Fast prototyping and molding

Finally, it should be always considered that, for the short and medium-term, AM is used as a key technology to obtain faster and more cost-effective prototypes and tools (in footwear this segment includes molds, patterns and lasts), to be used in traditional footwear manufacturing processes.

  • HILOS is introducing a radically new way to make shoes that blends artistry with performance. The Portland-based company combines the traditional insole, midsole, and outsole of a shoe into a single 3D printed platform that embodies the performance requirements of each of these layers within a complete construction. Inset into…

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  • Hush Puppies, the iconic Wolverine Worldwide brand, will commercialize Voxel8‘s digital manufacturing technology in unique midsoles that provide enhanced comfort, support and longevity. “Hush Puppies is excited to build on our history of comfort innovation with the Voxel8 partnership. The brand invented casual 60+ years ago and we are committed…

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  • Voxel8, a Boston-area multi-material digital manufacturing company, and Eddy Ricami, a leading Italian manufacturer to the fashion industry, entered an exclusive arrangement for Eddy Ricami to produce and sell high-fashion accessories using Voxel8 technology and ActiveLab system. ActiveLab lets manufacturers offer unique design embellishments to customers with shorter design cycle…

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  • Tailor-made orthopedic footwear typically takes several weeks to manufacture – particularly because traditional shoe lasts still need to be made from wood, which is a fairly time-consuming process. PROTIQ demonstrated how this can be done faster: with the help of additive manufacturing. Custom shoe lasts can now be virtually printed…

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  • Aetrex Worldwide launched Albert 3DFit, a sleek and modern 3D foot scanner created to revolutionize the retail industry by making 3D fit technology available to stores of all sizes. Offering the most innovative technologies, this scanner can calculate customers’ 3D foot measurements in less than 10 seconds with an accuracy…

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  • adidas 4DFWD midsole

    adidas Running is no stranger to innovation: the global sportswear brand has pioneered the use of 3D printing technology for the mass production of running shoe midsoles for over four years. Today, the company has taken its next step in this journey with the launch of 4DFWD, a data-driven 3D…

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  • The Materialise Phits Suite is a new standard of personalized care program that helps improve patient mobility. After decades of experience in gait analysis and 3D technology, Materialise wants to start the next generation of insoles, leveraging the latest digital path capture technology, advanced analysis software and 3D printing to…

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  • Materials manufacturer Covestro and orthopedic service provider GeBioM, based in Münster, Germany, are expanding their cooperation in the field of orthopedic footwear. In addition to producing lasts and trial shoes, they now support orthopedic shoemakers in the production of custom insoles using 3D printing. A new Addigy FPU 79A thermoplastic…

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  • Welcome to our third eBook of 2021 and our second edition exploring the world of consumer applications for additive manufacturing. Read Now Download From shoes, to eyewear, to sports equipment, to jewelry: the possibilities for consumer 3D printing continue to grow, especially as high-volume technologies gain prominence and new materials…

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  • UAE-based Proto21, one of the most prolific 3D printing service providers in the Middle East and possibly worldwide, just 3D printed 1,008 pieces to form the 32-meter long modular facade of the new adidas flagship store in Dubai Mall. According to Proto21’s Founder and CEO Pir Arkam (in the center…

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