Will 3-D printing tech change the footwear industry?

Discussion
Photo: Self-Assembly Lab, MIT
Jan 07, 2020
Matthew Stern

A new 3-D printing innovation is delivering a new and different kind of shoe.

In partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Self-Assembly Lab, Canadian footwear brand Native Shoes has created a technology that prints full shoes out of liquid rubber, according to the 3D Printing Media Network. 

The technology prints the liquid rubber into a vat of gelatinous liquid, allowing the brand to create a shoe in a single piece (rather than printing parts separately and assembling them, as in 3-D printing pilots from other shoe brands). Shoes generated by the process resemble patent leather and are meant to be in keeping with Native Shoes’ commitment to making light, no-frills and more environmentally sustainable footwear. Shoes can be made to order, saving resources, and the process is waste-free with the liquid rubber coming mostly from recycled materials.

The growth of 3-D printing has primarily been driven by hobbyists up to now. Retail-oriented use cases have begun appearing as the technology has improved, however, and 3-D printing offers the potential to radically shake up supply chains if the technology can be made to operate at scale. 

Footwear, in particular, has been a hot area for tech innovations that bring together customization and automation, which has included pilots built around 3-D printing.

In 2018, Nike announced that it was using its 3-D printing technology – Flyprint – to design the synthetic upper portion of some shoes, TechCrunch reported at the time. Shoes made with technology were, however, only being made available in limited quantities to elite runners.

Elsewhere in apparel, some small retailers have been testing out the concept of print-on-demand clothing. In 2017, Boston-based Ministry of Supply installed a 3-D knitting machine near its checkout counter, capable of printing out a customized blazer in around 90 minutes.

A 2017 survey said that 95 percent of customers looked forward to purchasing a product that is 3-D printed and 80 percent reported wanting to spend more money at a retailer that would allow them customization via 3-D printing.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What is your reaction to the 3-D printing experiment being conducted by Native Shoes and MIT? Do you see 3-D printing being able to scale in the future and what will its impact be on the consumer brand and retailing industries?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Most consumers won't care how the products are made if they find them fashionable and comfortable, so solve for that and popularity - and scale - will follow."
"I believe 3-D printing has a place in the future of retail. It will be the way we bring manufacturing back on-shore in the United States."
"A 3-D printer, even industrial grade, will take far longer to create shoes than other manufacturing methods."

Join the Discussion!

13 Comments on "Will 3-D printing tech change the footwear industry?"


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Carol Spieckerman
BrainTrust

3-D printing is already a thing in the footwear market as the success of women’s footwear company Rothy’s has proven. Rothy’s adds a sustainability element in that its shoes are made from recycled plastic bottles. Initially, styles were limited and comfort was a matter of opinion. The range has since expanded and fit has greatly improved. The technology may not make sense for more technical footwear but either way, 3-D printed footwear isn’t on the fringe, it’s in full swing.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

From an environmental standpoint, I see nothing but goodness in these 3-D printed shoes from Native Shoes. From a business perspective, I do think they have the potential to scale, but that will only matter if consumers find them to their liking – a big hurdle for most 3-D printed products to date. Most consumers won’t care how the products are made if they find them fashionable and comfortable, so solve for that and popularity – and scale – will follow.

Richard Hernandez
BrainTrust

3-D printing technology has been around for years and it is finally getting used in mainstream retail. Lots of positives around it — as long as it is affordable and you are able to get a 100 percent correct fit for your feet – who wouldn’t want that?

I see it expanding in other retail segments – hardware, clothing, kitchenwares, etc.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

3-D printing will change almost every industry. The footwear industry is one of the most basic industries it will have an effect on. As 3-D printing evolves, it will become better, cheaper, more efficient, and less costly. I can imagine people printing these shoes in their homes in the near future.

David Naumann
BrainTrust
David Naumann
Retail Industry Analyst
8 months 18 days ago

3-D printing of products is a great idea that may one day be the standard for basic, non-complex, consumer products. However, I suspect that it will take some time to make it an efficient and cost effective production method. Most consumers are not patient enough to wait 90 minutes and the cost of the machines and inventory of raw materials I assume are still more expensive than traditional manufactured products. What is a novelty today may be a standard tomorrow, but tomorrow may be a long time from now.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

I believe 3-D printing has a place in the future of retail. It will be the way we bring manufacturing back on-shore in the United States. Footwear, with its endless variations, is an interesting frontier for the technology. We have been trying for 25 years to figure out a custom option for footwear driven by diabetic patient needs and spearheaded by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. This is a real need and will save many lives and limbs.

I have a nephew who is a product engineer who worked at the Ministry of Supply and he and I both believe this technology will spread in the coming new decade. It is already being used in aviation with a unit on the space shuttle to create specialized tools that can be recycled to be made into yet another tool while in space. Retail will surely leverage something that eliminates excess inventory.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

3-D technology will and is affecting every industry from the simple to the complex. As cost come down, the product improves, and efficiency increases we will see it used in unimaginable ways.

As for footwear, I can imagine people printing out Native Shoes and their jellies at home.

Jeff Sward
BrainTrust

What’s not to like? Personalization to the ultimate degree. Sustainable and eco-friendly to the ultimate degree. You can even say experiential if you can stand there and watch your very own totally unique pair of shoes being made. What a hoot!

Brian Cluster
BrainTrust

3-D printing will be a growing manufacturing trend that will play a role in various retail outlets. In an age where consumers are interested in the transparency of their products, this is the ultimate way to understand the materials sourced and methods used for production. Furthermore, it is arguably more sustainable for the planet to ship out large spools of filament vs. the current state of shipping individual items manufactured thousands of miles away.

We have to think beyond shoes. I have seen some intricate 3-D printed desserts created by sugar that are just amazing and impossible to make by hand. By offering this service in a bakery inside a grocery store, it could offer up a new line of customizable desserts. There are many applications of 3-D printing that are still being explored.

Ananda Chakravarty
BrainTrust

3-D printing is still a novelty for the most part and it’s not gained enough momentum to hit critical mass. However, the potential is there. Ironically, not only is it about comfort and experience, but mostly about price and scale as Matthew notes. A 3-D printer, even industrial grade, will take far longer to create shoes than other manufacturing methods. Add in the cost of filament, infill, and layer density, and the costs can be quite high for the custom made shoe in plastic (or other materials like liquid rubber). We’ll see the opening up of this industry in the future with increased adoption and lower costs – but not anytime soon. I suspect it will evolve something like self-published books if done at the consumer level. There will be some that knock it out of the park, but most will be hidden gems, customized for uncle Fred’s spin class.

Neil Schwartz
Guest

3-D printing is already making its mark on the footwear industry. The problem is that it has been proven difficult to reach any sort of scale. Just the fact that Adidas is closing their Speedfactories that included 3-D printing for a variety of applications should send all of the signals you need.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

3-D printing made a splash a decade or so ago, and I really haven’t seen any widespread adoption in consumer-facing businesses yet. I think this is a great idea, and could be maximized based on the fact that footwear and apparel have the highest online shopping return rates.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Largely lacking from the discussion here is (manufacturing) time, as it always seems to be with any discussion of 3DP: it’s my understanding this is still a bespoke process (which is probably why it’s so far mostly hobbyists). Until that changes radically — the big “if” — I don’t think we’ll see any “radical shakeups” in footwear, or any other clothing line.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Most consumers won't care how the products are made if they find them fashionable and comfortable, so solve for that and popularity - and scale - will follow."
"I believe 3-D printing has a place in the future of retail. It will be the way we bring manufacturing back on-shore in the United States."
"A 3-D printer, even industrial grade, will take far longer to create shoes than other manufacturing methods."

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