Consumer applications have long been the Achille’s heel of additive manufacturing but all that may now be set to change. With the potential to generate as much as $6.3 billion per year within a decade, according to the latest report from leading market research firm SmarTech Analysis, footwear industry AM will drive radical changes in how consumer products are made. In fact, a growing number of applications are emerging within the different areas of footwear production that increasingly justify the use of more automated, digital and additive technologies.
The adoption of AM in the footwear segment is going to be a step by step progressive evolution. 3D printing has been used for footwear prototyping for over a decade and will continue to increasingly be used for modeling and mold production. In recent years, however, additive manufacturing technologies have become productive and cost-effective enough for the direct production of accessible end-use footwear products.
3D printed midsoles — pieces of material sandwiched between the outer and inner sole of a shoe — are the very first consumer products to be mass produced using additive manufacturing. Insoles, including orthopedic products, are virtually the first products to be mass customized via 3D printing.
These two main trends – production and customization – along with the explosive adoption of additive manufacturing (AM) in prototyping and mold production (especially in Asian markets), will be the key factors driving 3D printed footwear for the foreseeable future.
The footwear landscape
In 2018, the global footwear industry generated revenues of about $260 billion. 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. SmarTech expects that footwear 3D printing revenues currently represent roughly 0.3% of global footwear market revenues, but that figure is set to rise.
The footwear industry’s movement toward widespread adoption of additive manufacturing is tied to the macrotrend of increased personalization of all consumer products, which can already be seen in everything from automobiles to jewelry. Although personalization is still in a very early phase — most consumers still consider brands more valuable than custom-made products — younger generations are beginning to place more value on custom-made products, especially as they become readily available.
At the same time, AM is also pushing toward increased automation in the footwear market by further digitalizing the labor-intensive shoemaking process. As customization and digital automation come together, the trend of mass customization will begin to emerge. Footwear is expected to be one of the first families of consumer products where this transition will take place.
Kicking it AM
What kinds of footwear final products can and will be produced via 3D printing? While prototypes and molds will continue to generate the most demand for AM technologies in the near future, the first directly 3D printed and mass customized footwear products are orthopedic insoles, including custom sandals. These are produced today by a growing number of startups, leveraging easier access to 3D printing via AM services such as Materialise and Jabil. Data is increasingly acquired via dedicated foot and gait 3D scanning devices, which can even be placed in stores.
The next phase of growth is driven by digitally mass-produced midsoles. These “footwear components” have now become one of the most significant examples of mass production via additive manufacturing. After a number of attempts, major companies such as adidas and New Balance have developed a workflow for cost-effectively 3D printing hundreds of thousands of footwear midsoles.
Other key end-use products include a wide range of limited editions and specialty high-performance sportswear used by professional athletes. 3D printing has also been used for a number of highly experimental and artistic designer footwear products, ranging from entire shoes to custom sculpted heels, showing the potential of this technology in a growing number of fields.
None could be larger than mass-produced uppers. A few major firms, including Nike and Reebok, are working to implement 3D printing technologies in the production of footwear uppers. This labor-intensive process is generally achieved through the extrusion of polyurethane materials along with automated knitting or textile cutting process. AM could drastically reduce the necessary steps and costs to produce custom uppers.
Outsoles are the farthest away as they require very durable materials and are relatively easy to make with current technologies. But there are projects in the works for those as well.