The way we make performance footwear and gear is about to change, constant improvement to 3D software and printing technology has made the technology more accessible than ever. For a skilled designer, 3D modeling can provide a fully realistic, interactive, 360 degree view of a product instantly—3D printing allows you to actually have a tangible model made in a matter of hours as opposed to months, and at a fraction of previous costs. However, if not handled correctly it could cut out an incredible amount of skill, creativity and quality. Let's weigh out the pros and the cons of 3D printing, as this new technology could make major waves in the industry in the next few years.
MrBailey is a footwear designer / developer consultant and the co-founder of the custom lifestyle footwear brand, lūp. He also owns and operates the footwear design, development and marketing agency, FTWRDSGN and is the founder and editor of the footwear design website, Concept Kicks.
Developing the Perfect Shoe
Pros: Often one of the biggest pain points of starting an athletic footwear brand is the cost of creating sole unit molds. Generally, each sole mold stars at a thousand dollars, depending on the complexity of the product. Each molds are only good for ONE shoe size, so if you’d like to produce a full size range it will be $20,000 before you’ve even started production (and that’s excluding the cost of designers and developers, finding and visiting the correct factory, and filling the minimum order quantities). This is probably one of the largest setbacks for new brands trying to break into the industry.
3D printing will not only allow the big brands, but also younger, less established brands to create soles in a fraction of the time and cost. Currently the sole development process is quite lengthy, taking about a month to create a mold if everything runs smoothly. With 3D printing that time is cut considerably and will allow more experimentation in the long run.
Cons: Though there are companies starting to claim that they are able to 3D print in rubber, the materials available to 3D printing are still somewhat limited. Until models can be printed in materials that mimic EVA, TPR, PU, etc... the use of printing soles will purely be for specialized footwear or for visual confirmation and not any general performance application. Additionally, it’ll still be a little while until a viable upper can be printed. Producing a functional, 3D printed rubber or something close to it is something that could be realized very soon.
Pros: 3D modeling certainly makes it easier for designers to show their potential client a fully rotational version of their intended design. However, it seems like a lot of younger designers are starting to use 3D modeling technology from the get-go, foregoing the more traditional skills of sketching and rendering—thumbnail sketching, coming up with little random ideas, detailing thought processes, exploring all avenues, and building on what you’ve created is all part of the creative process.
When you go wham-bam straight to a more finalized-looking rendering, you’re limiting your creation to your current level of skill using that particular 3D program, rather than letting your ideas run free. A 3D modeling program hadn't been developed yet that doesn't require many years of experience and expertise for full functionality.
A would-be shoe designer recently asked how to break into the industry and which 3D program was best to learn. Sketching remains the most important skill, followed by rendering (either pen on paper or computer assisted rendering). Master the basics before you take the next step. 3D modeling should be the frosting on the cake.
Cons: If you have the skill set, 3D modeling really is a great way to showcase your complex designs in a cost and time efficient manner. If handled correctly, 3D modeling and printing could easily increase levels of creativity. This also means you can produce each sole as needed, meaning young creatives have a cost effective means of producing more outlandish concepts and save thousands on over stocking inventory due to the (normally large) minimum order quantities that factories generally require. This essentially makes creative design more of a viable concept, capable of participating in an extremely competitive market.
But How Strong Is It?
Pros: The great thing about 3D software is that it can show, thanks to wear-testing software, potential weak spots before a model made. Also as the technology continues to evolve, we’ll find new and creative ways to counteract the current issues with the strength of 3D printed parts. With the extra amount of flexibility given to us by 3D printing and the intricate formations we can produce, it’s very possible new that designers can react to the different conditions being applied to new ideas immediately.
Cons: Due to the layer-by-layer technique used to create 3D printed parts, they are currently weaker than traditionally manufactured parts. A sole produced with current production methods will have an equal amount of strength throughout it’s mass, whereas a 3D printed sole will have substantial weakness in the Z axis, compared to its strength in the X and Y planes. In layman's terms, it’s strong in one direction but considerably weaker in another.
Examining the Final Product
Pros: Though we’re currently fairly limited in material choice, new ways of implementing 3D printed materials into the design process are are always being discovered. Perhaps a gold woven soccer cleat or a powder-coated sneaker upper is in our future.
Cons: Currently, the finishing level of 3D printing leaves much to be desired. Due to the layering production method, there’s still quite a bit of after work that has to be done to create the professional, finished look of most mass produced products. The overall smoothness in production will have to step up considerably if we want to take a fully, or even partially, 3D printed shoe to market straight from the printer.
Is It Affordable?
Pros: Globalisation has created such a huge void in the levels of competitive production pricing within the footwear industry. Most shoes bought in America are generally created abroad. 3D printing could be the gateway to stimulating local footwear production and creating more jobs within that sector.
Cons: Currently both 3D software and 3D printing machines are pretty expensive (though they’ve come down in price significantly) and are also quite complicated. Only when the versatility of the machines increases, and the benefits outweigh the initial costs, will we see any real effect in the footwear industry and economy in general.