For years, we've been hearing about how 3-D printing was going to revolutionize the fashion and footwear industry. Unless you are a major sports star with a Nike deal, though, these "revolutionary" 3-D-printed sneakers have been largely absent. The closest we've seen to consumer products were United Nude's 3-D-printed pumps, which were designed more for the shelf than the human foot.
This month, Under Armour unveiled the Architech, a performance trainer with a 3-D-printed midsole that has been designed to help athletes stay stable during strength training. Unlike other 3-D-printed footwear, you can actually buy a pair of Architechs, at least if you get in there early. But as the Architech shows, we're still a long way from 3-D printing shoes at scale. Here's why.
Right now, whether you're buying cheap Keds or high-end Nike sneakers, all shoes are made in pretty much the same way.
First, the parts of a shoe are cut by steel dies on a hydraulic press, which almost functions like a cookie cutter. More elaborate sneaker parts, like the soles, are produced in molds. After all of the parts of a sneaker have been created, they are then stitched together on an assembly line, piece by piece.
It's a process that works well, tens of millions of times a year. But it doesn't allow for customization. The sneaker manufacturing process treats every foot as if it's more or less the same.
That's why shoemakers are so excited about 3-D printing. It doesn't really make sense to 3-D print an entire shoe—that's too expensive—but even just 3-D printing the sole could, in theory, allow shoemakers to customize each sneaker to its wearer's foot.
Wisely, then, Under Armour's new Architechs don't try to 3-D print the whole shoe. Instead, their new strength trainers—which are designed to keep athletes stable as they lift weights in the gym—are mostly assembled conventionally, except for the 3-D-printed midsoles.
Even so, Under Armour admits it just isn't ready to mass-manufacture these: Each of the 96 pairs of Architechs have been assembled at UA's Baltimore innovation lab. And the midsoles aren't being individually customized either. Under Armour, which is selling the Architechs for $300 a pair, wouldn't even tell me if they were making a profit on the Architechs. "It's definitely a different cost structure," says Under Armour's VP of training footwear, Chris Lindgren.
The Architechs, then, are essentially a statement shoe. "We're trying to dip our toe in the water, not in level of commitment to the technology, but to see how consumers react, and what we can learn from them," Lindgren says. "There are other ways to make shoes like this, including very expensive molding, but we think 3-D printing is going to fundamentally change the manufacturing model."
So why aren't we there yet?
It feels like we've been hearing forever that 3-D printing is going to change the shoe industry, only for it to not deliver. The reason is because 3-D printing remains a twitchy technology. It's slower than molding and prone to errors, which can result in considerable time lost when a 3-D-printed object does not turn out exactly as you'd expect.
Part of the problem is that the factories in Europe, Southeast Asia, and South America where most shoes are assembled simply aren't outfitted with banks of 3-D printers yet. That's partly about economics: Why invest in a 1,000 3-D printers to make a midsole when it's cheaper to make it with injection molding?
But there's another issue at play, says Autodesk senior director of design research Mark Davis, who helped provide Under Armour the generative design technology used to make the Architechs a reality. Right now, even if factories did have those bays of 3-D printers, there'd be few qualified people to operate them. The "tribal knowledge" to 3-D print at scale just isn't there.
"In 3-D printing, you only become an expert after making a lot of mistakes, and learning from them," Davis tells me. That's true on the MakerBot level, and it's doubly true at manufacturing scale. Davis says it took Autodesk about a decade to reach the point where the company felt confident it was an expert in additive manufacturing.
"The expertise to work with these machines is still in rare supply," Davis argues. "And there's really no shortcut to get it."
Not coincidentally, 10 years from now is when Under Armour's Chris Lindgren says that he thinks 3-D printing will be a fundamental part of every sneaker factory. When that happens, buying a high-end pair of customized sneakers might look something like this.
Instead of just going into a store and trying on a new pair of kicks, you might download a smartphone app, and then use it to scan your foot's unique shape. That scan would then be uploaded to the cloud, where it would be paired with generative design software like Autodesk Within to create a a unique latticed midsole specific to your foot's morphology. This midsole would then be printed out on an additive manufacturing machine in a footwear factory hundreds or thousands of miles away, then stitched to the parts of the sneaker still being produced by traditional manufacturing methods. The finished pair of shoes, uniquely customized to your foot, would then be mailed directly to your door.
Companies like Under Armour don't expect 3-D printing to make consumer footwear cheaper. In fact, the opposite is probably true: 3-D printing will likely open up whole new avenues for footwear companies to profit.
"I don't think we see 3-D printing as lowering the cost [of footwear], so much as changing the financial model," Lindgren says. After all, wouldn't you pay more for a pair of sneakers as custom-tailored to you as a pair of Nikes are to LeBron James?