The brief was simple: “create a world-first footwear product using the latest in 3D printing”. At least it sounded simple. 3D printing itself isn’t new, it’s older than I am, but its progress is allowing us to dream even bigger. To dream of a future without design limitation and truly customized sports shoes.
Two weeks from concept to prototype
While the brief sounded simple, the product journey was a little more complex. The project had humble beginnings, an idea born from a close-knit creative team who are constantly seeking new ways of creating exciting product; I was brought on board to help make this idea a reality.
I worked closely with our partner Materialise who eventually would print our running shoe. After some time looking through some emerging materials to use, we discovered a truly perfect and unique material: modified thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). After all, a footwear performance product needs to live up to its promise: performance! TPU can deliver exactly that. It’s brand-new in the marketplace and convinced us with its durable elasticity as well as high tear strength and abrasion resistance. We quickly applied this material to the most suitable printing method – Laser Sintering, a process that is so accurate that we could create almost any design.
Since 3D printing is so fast in prototyping stages, within 2 weeks I had run in the shoe myself.
10 km later we came together as a creation team to review. It was really only then, a moment we sat in awe of a virtually unharmed pair of 3D-printed shoes, that we realized the enormous potential we had on our hands. If we could find the right design to match with this groundbreaking material, the impact would be revolutionary.
Tapping our collective expertise to overcome challenges
While the first results were encouraging, we were facing some challenges on the way. I sometimes wished it was as simple as pressing the print button on the machine. It wasn’t. We found that stiffness of the midsole varied significantly as a result of very minor process or design changes. We began a thorough investigation into the process parameters required to achieve the perfect cushioning. For something of this complexity, we needed to involve the best minds in the company. We brought in experts from over 15 different teams to give their views, among them adidas’ own engineering function, the FUTURE team, that added significantly with a complex range of test methods and technical support.
The result of our combined effort: a world-first running shoe that is impossible to create in any other way.
Now that we had the prototype, we started to dream big. We all have different foot shapes, and we all have different running gaits. This makes buying a running shoe a tricky journey. By harnessing 3D printing technology, the ultimate goal of true product customization is closer than ever before. It’s a promise of a fast approaching revolutionary in-store experience, where your style of running could be analyzed and used to create a perfectly tailored functional product. This opportunity eliminates the anxiety of buying a new running shoe, knowing that there is no other shoe in the world that is better fitted with the right characteristics for you. I believe the promise of 3D printing isn’t far away from being fulfilled on a larger scale so it’s great being part of a team that is getting ahead of the game.