5 Exciting Examples of 3D Printing in Footwear Manufacturing

10 October 2022
Carbon's 3D Printed Sole


[Image credit: Carbon]

‘Innovation’ as an objective in business development has become increasingly integral to prosperity in the contemporary market, overflowing with those eager to spearhead revolutionary change. However, it is the Additive Manufacturing sphere that holds the advantage of continuously closing the gap between ‘innovation’ and its sibling term, ‘invention’. No clearer is this demonstrated than in the rapidly expanding utilisation of 3D printing in the footwear industry, forwarding innovation through the invention of shoes like no other. SmarTech Analysis’ 2019 report, ‘3D Printing in Footwear’, anticipates a ‘$5.9 billion revenue opportunity by 2029’ on the back of AM’s integration into footwear manufacturing approaches. In fact, a $1 billion increase in revenue alone is expected to have already taken place since SmarTech’s announcement, and, significantly, since AMFG’s last article on the subject.

Jumping from high fashion to high function, this piece sets out to investigate the exciting developments in 3D printed footwear in 2022 through the framework of five intriguing case studies, exhibiting the sheer expansiveness of benefits their example unfolds. To step away from the well-trodden path in business can prompt the change needed to surge forward – these companies are designing precisely the shoes for the job.


Adidas® and Carbon®’s 4DFWD Running Shoe


adidas 4DFWD midsole black 1
[Image credit: Adidas]

Adidas has upheld its reputation as a game-changer in the footwear industry with its recent release of the 4DFWD, the latest iteration in its ongoing collaboration with 3D printer manufacturing company Carbon. Since the release of its first 3D printed shoe in 2017, the Futurecraft 4D, the shock-absorbing ‘midsole’ section of shoe composition has been Adidas’ muse, considered the crux around which the comfort of the wearer revolves. The 4DFWD showcases a promising amalgam of new developments.

A prize quality of Adidas’ varied dabblings with 3D printed shoes across the past five years has been its integration of Carbon’s revolutionary EUP 41 resin, a material with elastomeric properties enabling a broad variety of properties, from stiffness to flexibility. Leading the next stride forward, the 4DFWD employs the material’s newest manifestation, EPU 44 – a ‘stiffer, highly resilient’ and ‘more sustainable elastomer’, according to Carbon’s announcement. Printing at higher rates than EPU 41 and demanding less material for comparable application spaces, EPU 44 offers to fulfil consumer demand more efficiently, whilst its 40% biobased composition secures its suitability for an increasingly environmentally aware market. As Carbon hones its elastomer more and more, the potentials for high-quality footwear design continue to climb.

The lattice structure of the Adidas midsole constitutes another of its unique properties, offering the invaluable advantage of tunability and, consequently, customisation. Keeping in mind the particular anatomical requirements of the foot, alongside the impact taken during running, the 4DFWD’s ‘bowtie-shaped’ lattice structure carefully varies from the forefoot to the heel, facilitating the best exercise experience possible: the shoe collaborates with the runner. ‘Customisation’, indeed, has been a dominant advantage of 3D printing in the footwear industry for some time, New Balance‘s 2019 collaboration with HP Inc. and Superfeet launching customisable ‘New Balance Stride3D Insoles’, using 3D foot scans to develop insoles not only for sports-related purposes, but also for the everyday walker. Adidas’ adoption of Carbon’s lattice structures prove promising as this subsection of AM footwear unfolds.



Sintratec’s “Cryptide Sneaker”


Walking Cryptide
[Image credit: Sintratec]

Moving away from functionality and into the realm of the fantastical, Stephan Henrich’s “Cryptide Sneaker” grabs hold of the creative capacities that AM technologies offer, designed such that the wearer’s every step leaves a print on the ground in the style of a cryptid creature – think ‘Bigfoot’. Harnessing the Sintratec S2 System’s laser sintering capacities, customisation once more crops up as a key feature of the product, printed in line with the wearer’s individual anatomy, pulling together an uncanny yet exciting combination of unconventional visuals and ergonomic comfort.

When placed on the overarching timeline of 3D printed footwear history, Henrich’s shoe exemplifies an immensely important development since AMFG’s 2019 reflections on the subject. ‘3D printing entire shoes is a fascinating idea, but it currently remains unfeasible’, the piece declared, condemning the prospect at the time as ‘out of reach’. Three years later, a once-ambitious possibility has reached actuality: Henrich’s shoe is composed entirely of TPE, leaving production capacities completely in AM’s hands. Indeed, Sintratec is not alone in covering this new ground. Zellerfield and Heron Preston’s 2021 collaboration, for instance, brought about their HERON01 shoes, similarly owing its production completely to 3D printing in its TPU-based constitution. A monumental advantage of manufacturing using this method, in the HERON01’s case, is the creation of a fully recyclable product.

Henrich’s project transforms the mundane into the mythological – just as such innovative developments stamp their mark on AM history, significance is assigned to the “Cryptide” wearer’s every step.


A POC ABLE by Issey Miyake and Magarimono’s ‘Type-III Magarimono Project’ Sandals


Issey Miyake Type-III Magarimono Project
[Image credit: Issey Miyake Inc.]

Whilst the creation of fully 3D printed shoes wields real strength as an excitingly new capacity, Issey Miyake’s and Magarimono’s ‘Type-III Magarimono Project’ sandals quite literally weaves fresh significance into the collaboration between human and machine in production.

Taking a richly historical subject and reworking it through a contemporary lens, the shoe draws inspiration from Japanese zōri, thonged sandals traditionally constructed by handweaving materials such as rice straw. Miyake, ever an innovative figure in the fashion industry, worked alongside Magarimono, a designer whose 2020 ‘Originals’ collection put forward the first fully 3D printed sneakers to enter the Japanese market. Through their joint effort, the ‘Type-III Magarimono Project’ came into being, a sandal consisting of a 3D-printed sole and into which cords are handwoven to create a cushioned base. Human input here works in tandem with machine operation, addressing concerns that 3D printing’s presence in the fashion industry may erase the valuable sense of a designer’s love and care being woven into such conventionally ‘handmade’ items. Miyake and Magarimono shift the narrative away from a battle between the new and the old to instead explore the capacities of harmonious coexistence, two methods brought together into a product that allows the benefits of both to flourish.

Weixin Zha’s 2019 article for Fashion United resonantly quotes fashion design student Lucas Viering: “Fashion can do well without 3D printing and 3D printing also without fashion […] so, both need to interact with each other in a way that hasn’t been seen before”. Miyake and Magarimono’s sandals achieve this, both literally and metaphorically pressing together the technological and the handmade.


ATHOS, Sculpteo® and HP®’s Mountain Climbing Shoes



Athos Sculpteo and HP's Mountain Climbing Shoe
[Image credit: The James Dyson Award]


Sports related shoes have largely taken centre-stage in the search for innovative AM solutions in the footwear industry over the past few years, as evidenced by Adidas’ perpetual growth in the sphere; continuing this trend, 2022 has witnessed the creation of the first 3D printed mountain climbing shoes to ever enter the market.

ATHOS, an apparel start-up based in Barcelona, have partnered up with HP’s Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) technology alongside 3D printing service bureau Sculpteo, pinpointing a market which for years has struggled to provide an adequate product to customers. The immense discomfort typical of climbing shoes has up until now been broadly accepted, despite often catalysing the injury and even chronic deformity of athletes wearing them. It is not uncommon for climbers to seek the safety of secure grip by wearing shoes up to 3 sizes smaller than their true fit. However, ATHOS offers a solution further solidifying the value of customisation. The process of ordering the shoe starts within ATHOS’s app, enabling customers to independently scan their feet using their mobile device, before offering them the capacity to further customise their product to suit they specific mode of climbing frequented by them. The body of the shoe is then printed using Forward AM’s Ultrasint® TPU01, specifically designed for HP’s 5200 series MJF printers, a material exhibiting the impressive elasticity needed for the unpredictable terrain a climber encounters.

ATHOS’s shoes extend solace to the 86 percent of climbers that suffer with foot complications, according to Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association’s 2013 epidemiologic study. They promise to restore the athlete’s control over their body, redirecting attention away from interior discomfort or pain and towards the exterior thrill of the mountains they traverse.




Nike x ACRONYM® – 3D printed heel grips




solebox Nike x ACRONYM Blazer Low Heel Clips
[Image credit: solebox]

As an article documenting and dissecting exciting AM-related ‘footwear’ releases which 2022 has witnessed so far, Nike x ACRONYM’s monumental reworking of the iconic ‘Nike Blazer Low’ design has earned its place on this list. Though the main body of the shoe does not itself largely incorporate 3D printed materials, each sneaker comes with two removable TPU heel clips, alongside the ability to independently download and 3D-print files containing further heel clip designs.

In celebration of the collection, sneaker boutique solebox invited 10 creatives to design heel clips for the shoe line, then modelled for 3D printing through the support of ACRONYM’s Errolson Hugh and released as available for download. Intricate and bold, the collection of clips demonstrates the ways in which additive manufacturing can ‘add’ once more to pre-existing artefacts in innovative ways, circling back to Miyake and Magarimono’s sentiments. Beyond this, a further number of artists eagerly put forward their own designs, a popular take including Art Director les83machines’ piece inspired by the popular animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion. The theme of customisation trickling throughout this article here gains a different flavour, shifting from anatomical tunability to expression of aesthetic preference.

The ingenuity of the Nike x Acronym Blazer Low comes in its domino-effect encouragement of further engagement with 3D printing as a creative medium. Still placing AM at the centre of its success despite the shoe itself epitomising the ‘classic’ trainer style, a single pair of shoes offers a blank slate upon which its wearer can design and print to their heart’s content.


Stepping into the Future



With increasing velocity, 3D printing proves itself to be a multifaceted tool to the footwear industry, dually combatting the issues it faces and broadening its creative horizons. Where its utility in 2019 may have prompted a gentle simmer in the market, it seems that things are finally coming to a boil.

Throughout this article, customisation has consistently reared its head as the overwhelming benefit of utilising AM approaches towards producing fresh and exciting footwear products. Indeed, a plethora of advantages are unlocked in its wake, ranging from the possibility of honing products to a wearer’s unique anatomical requirements – whether for the benefit of enhancing sports performance or facilitating pain relief – to creating a space for artistic and personal expression. From a customer’s body to their soul, nothing is left unaccounted for by these shoes’ ‘body’ and ‘sole’.

With Vantage Market Research anticipating a 3D printing market compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.4% between 2022 and 2028, SmarTech’s optimistic forecast appears to be slowly but steadily mounting into full actuality. AMFG’s previous article ended with cautious optimism, summarising its findings in the admission that ‘3D printing is opening the door for innovative footwear products’. In 2022, that anticipation has metamorphosed into absolute and tantalising certainty, ripping the metaphorical door from its hinges. 


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