Native Shoes and MIT 3D printing liquid rubber footwear

Canadian footwear company Native Shoes is working with MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab and a team from the Emily Carr University of Art and Design to develop a new type of 3D printed shoe. The collaborative project, called Liquid Printed Natives, involves a novel liquid rubber 3D printing technique.

Since 2009, Native Shoes has produced and sold shoes that reflect its underlying philosophy: “Live Lightly.” In practice, this has meant using sustainable practices and materials to fabricate original, comfortable and lightweight footwear for men, women and children. One of the company’s main efforts is its Remix Project, which enables customers to recycle their worn Native Shoes for new projects and products.

The project by Native Shoes that caught our eye, however, is Liquid Printed Natives—for obvious reasons. The project, undertaken by Native Shoes, MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab and Emily Carr University, demonstrates the capability of liquid rubber 3D printing for the production of more sustainable footwear.

To date, the partners have used the 3D printing method to produce versions of Native Shoes’ Audrey and Jefferson designs. The shoes are printed in a single piece using a material developed by a team at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design which resembles black patent leather.

Unlike many other footwear 3D printing initiatives we’ve seen—which largely involve FDM 3D printing or the production of a midsole—Liquid Printed Natives showcases the ability to produce an entire wearable shoe, including the sole and upper, in a single piece. The printing process itself consists of depositing the liquid plastic material inside a vat of gel, building the shoe from the sole up.

From a sustainable perspective, the 3D printed shoes offer a couple of advantages. For one, the shoes can be made to order for customers—reducing the need for inventory or mass production. Second, because the 3D printing process only uses the exact amount of material needed for the shoe, the process results in virtually no waste. (The gel support material is reportedly also reusable).

Finally, the material used to produce the 3D printed shoes is made from mostly recycled materials. According to Fast Company, the rubber-like material is made from a combination of recycled EVA and a flexible material used by Native Shoes for its more traditional footwear. Compared to Native Shoes’ injection molded shoes, the 3D printed footwear material can integrate a much higher percentage of recycled EVA (up to 50%). 

Presently, the 3D printed shoes and material used are still being fine tuned by Native Shoes, the Self-Assembly Lab and Emily Carr researchers. We’ll be eager to see when they hit the market and how much they will retail for.

Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault moved from her home of Montreal, Canada to the Netherlands in 2014 to pursue a master’s degree in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. It was during her time in Amsterdam that she became acquainted with 3D printing technology and began writing for a local additive manufacturing news platform. Now based in France, Tess has over two and a half years experience writing, editing and publishing additive manufacturing content with a particular interest in women working within the industry. She is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM industry.

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