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Additive Manufacturing is Transforming Performance Footwear

Tue May 01 00:00:00 EDT 2018

Imagine going to a store the afternoon you arrive at a ski resort, being weighed, measured and having your feet digitally scanned, and then discussing your skiing style with an expert fitter. The next day you pick up a pair of 3D printed ski boots that are unique to you. A perfect fit, great comfort, the right flex and support. This is just one of the possibilities that additive manufacturing can offer the world of footwear. And we’re not talking about a custom insole, we’re talking about the entire boot including the buckles and mechanisms.

This is just the tip of an iceberg that could revolutionize performance athletic footwear, and other specialist footwear markets, taking it from best-fit to custom-fit.

Athletic footwear represents 14 percent of the entire footwear industry -- that’s more than $47 billion. And this is just one sector where additive manufacturing is set to disrupt the status quo. The global medical shoe market is projected to grow by a CAGR of 8.12 percent during 2017-2022, driven by the increasing number of patients with diabetes, a growing geriatric population, greater awareness regarding foot health and increasing healthcare expenditures. The foot orthotic insoles market in North America alone is expected to reach $1.7 billion by the end of 2022, growing at a CAGR of 6.2 percent during 2017-2022. The Industrial Protective Footwear Market is expected to garner $6 billion by 2022, with a CAGR of 7.5 percent during that period. Then there’s the growth in demand for specialist military footwear.

There are a few other reasons that the footwear industry stands to gain so much from additive manufacturing. The first and obvious reason is that our feet are all different, unique if you will. For years, made-to-measure shoes have been very expensive and restricted to very small numbers with unique casts being created and used like a mannequin to make shoes. Now that same level of mass customization is reality; accessible and affordable to many more people. The ability to customize or personalize at volume could prove revolutionary, having applications in performance footwear, protective footwear and other applications where the right footwear can be the difference between comfort and chronic pain.

It’s not just advances in machines that are moving us toward a tipping point in the adoption of additive manufacturing in the footwear industry. Materials are also playing an essential role. New materials are providing greater performance, comfort, support and durability, all at an economical cost.

What’s more, additive manufacturing can open opportunities for smaller volume producers or for a special or limited editions of a shoe. It provides a much quicker route to market when tooling or molds can be quickly produced using additive manufacturing. The whole economics of manufacturing changes, and the ability to design products specifically with AM in mind could make lower volume viable, where before that made no financial sense. This could mean bringing a unique shoe in small volumes to market or delivering first-to-market advantage with a new product launch.

Additive manufacturing delivers in the industries that adopt it, a unique benefit in terms of manufacturing distribution, allowing brands to bring production much closer to the end user. In the case of the ski boot, right to the mountainside. The idea of distributed manufacturing is a real game-changer for brands, allowing print farms to be located close to the end user and in numbers and locations that traditional manufacturing could not. More than just being able to manufacture close to the point of consumption, this change in the production footprint offers many supply chain benefits, not the least being a positive environmental impact. Ostensibly the strategy is simple: to ship data, not product. That could mean printing an orthopedic insole at a surgery or hospital or a performance sports shoe in a retail setting.

Now, more than ever, brands need to consider how best to interact with increasingly demanding consumers. They aren’t looking for something out of a box that is a good fit, they are looking for the perfect fit along with the right blend of comfort, support, and performance, all with a high level of durability. Consumers also want to make their own selections, adding a high degree of personalization and their own style to the products they purchase.

The world is changing fast, and footwear is changing with it. New demands create new challenges, and additive manufacturing offers the opportunity to meet these demands head-on, improving product performance, reducing time to market and most importantly, creating a better brand experience.

To learn more, download our whitepaper “Taking Footwear from Best-Fit to Custom-Fit with Additive Manufacturing.”

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