Those with extensive knowledge about the intricacies of footwear production have used a cellphone metaphor to describe the infantile stages of 3D printing's application for usage in creating designs that are both cutting edge and economically responsible - stating that the techniques and aesthetics of 2016's designs are similar to the brick cellphone of yesteryear which was laborious and cumbersome.
Like with any piece of innovation, designers have to start somewhere, and you better believe that the race is already being run by major shoe companies like Nike, adidas, New Balance and Under Armour who all want to stake their claim as the king of 3D printing.
The practice is viewed as a mutually beneficial endeavor for both brand and consumer. For the former, it has the ability to dramatically cut down on waste and can also dramatically expedite the design process. For the latter, specificity to one's needs - in terms of size, fit and athletic discipline - can be much more tailor-made.
But who is winning in 2016 and perhaps more importantly, who will own 2017?
One of Nike's biggest coups in the footwear space was the introduction of its Flyknit technology which not only drew praise from sneakerheads, but was applauded by the environmental community for eliminating 3.5 million pounds of waste due to its one-piece construction.
Nike CEO, Mark Parker, has always been a proponent of achieving growth in a responsible manner - noting that since 2008, Nike’s revenue has grown 64% but it has limited absolute emissions to only 20% growth across manufacturing, logistics and Nike-owned facilities.
“We have embraced sustainable innovation as a powerful engine for growth and a catalyst for change,” Parker said.
As it stands, recycled materials are being used in 71% of Nike’s footwear and apparel products. With growth still in mind, the company plans to send zero waste from contracted footwear manufacturing to landfills by 2020.
This means that 3D printing is definitely a priority for the Swoosh since they first entered the fray back in 2013 with the Nike Vapor Laser Talon football cleat - which provided optimal traction on football turf and helped athletes to maintain their “drive stances” longer - and which became the first 3D-printed plate to be used in the sport.
“SLS technology has revolutionized the way we design cleat plates – even beyond football – and gives Nike the ability to create solutions that were not possible within the constraints of traditional manufacturing processes,” said Shane Kohatsu, Director of Nike Footwear Innovation.
A year later, Nike would expand upon this project with the Nike Vapor HyperAgility Cleat, Cooling Hoodie for world record-holding decathlete Ashton Eaton, and the Nike Football Rebento duffle bag.
In May 2016, Nike unveiled the Nike Zoom Superfly Flyknit for gold medal-winning sprinter, Alyson Felix - something we believed was one of Nike's biggest innovations of the year.
Although the final product was made of more traditional materials, 3D printing figured prominently in crafting bespoke specificity for an athlete who relies heavily on her footwear to give her a competitive advantage.
Specifically, SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) 3D printing reduced sampling time from weeks to days and provided designers with immediate feedback.
The verdict: Speed is key for Nike right now. They seem to be more interested in tweaks to prototypes as opposed to using 3D printing for wearable final products for the masses.
They solidified their intentions moving forward in the 3D printing space by partnering with HP in May of this year.
Tom Clarke, President, Nike Innovation, explained, “At Nike we innovate for the world’s best athletes. We’ve been using 3D printing to create new performance innovations for footwear for the past several years. Now we are excited to partner with HP to accelerate and scale our existing capabilities as we continue to explore new ways to manufacture performance products to help athletes reach their full potential.”
No one has never accused Nike of lacking innovation or imagination. But the usage of 3D printing to create an expedited prototype program for signature shoes is leaving consumers out of the equation.
If they're not careful, 3D printing could get lumped in with their self-lacing initiative which drew ire from the public from the high price tag.
It also begs the question, is Nike focusing too much on selling the idea of athletic performance instead of looking to focus more on lifestyle?
In 2015, adidas unveiled its Futurecraft 3D initiative - a unique 3D-printed running shoe midsole which could be tailored to the cushioning needs of an individual’s foot.
"Futurecraft 3D is a prototype and a statement of intent," said Eric Liedtke, Executive Board Member of adidas. "We have used a one-of-its-kind combination of process and material in an entirely new way. Our 3D-printed midsole not only allows us to make a great running shoe, but also to use performance data to drive truly bespoke experiences, meeting the needs of any athlete."
Unlike their main rival, Nike, adidas is putting their 3D program into tangible motion for consumers with the announcement that the same 3D runner that had been gifted to athletes like Allison Schmitt and Mariana Pajon in Rio would now be available for purchase and feature the same engineered 3D design with 3D-printed heel counter that is directly integrated into the midsole.
“This is just the beginning,” noted Senior Director of adidas’s Future team, Mikal Peveto. “Creating customized shoes based on an individual’s footprint – including their running style, foot shape, performance needs and personal preferences – is a north star for the industry and adidas is leading with cutting edge innovations.”
The verdict: adidas is making a strong statement by beating Nike to the marketplace despite the Swoosh investing in 3D technologies several years before they did. It also sends a clear message that adidas' SPEEDFACTORY is not merely a Nike Innovation Kitchen ripoff. Rather, the strides they are making have real world applications for those that will never even have a whiff of a serious international athletic competition.
Our own assessment of the 3D-printed Futurecraft shoe suggested that adidas is perfecting a grander vision, noting, "The shoe is significantly more weighty than it seems in pictures, but both responsive and comfortable on-foot – the midsole itself is relatively stiff and resilient without being brittle."
adidas is also relying heavily on ARAMIS - a motion capture software used by NASA to inspect the outer hull of space shuttles - in order to track the gait of runners - and which maps skin, bone and muscle, to one day have the ability to create one-off shoes for customers.
"It's a really versatile tool," said George Robusti, Senior Design Director of Global Running at adidas, of the ARAMIS system. "The technology enabled us to fine-tune how we approach the functionality of the product. You shouldn't need to think about the shoe being there."
The announcement of the 3D Runner also solidified Chief Marketing Officer, Eric Liedkte's, desire to get 3D printing in regular people's hands.
Last October he was quoted by Fast Company Design as saying, "Ideally we would have a limited product -- and I mean limited -- in [stores in] the summer of 2016."
Although he missed projections by a few months, it's clear that adidas has a strategy laid out for 2017 and beyond.
In 2013, New Balance developed a proprietary process for utilizing a runner's individual biomechanical data to create customizable "spike plates" that were designed to improve performance for high-level distance athletes like 1500m World Champion gold medalist, Jenny Barringer Simpson; 2012 US Olympic Athlete, Kim Conley; 2012 Great Britain Olympic athlete, Barbara Parker; and four-time all-American runner in the 800m, 1500m, and the mile, Jack Bolas.
“With 3D printing we are able to pursue performance customization at a new level to help our elite NB athletes and eventually all athletes, “said New Balance President and CEO, Robert DeMartini, in 2013. “We believe this is the future of performance footwear and we are excited to bring this to consumers.”
In April 2016, New Balance unveiled their first 3D-printed release intended for the public - the Zante Generate - the industry’s first performance running shoe with a 3D-printed midsole.
Limited to just 44 pairs and priced at $400 USD, the 3D-printed midsoles were created by converting new powder material into solid cross-sections, which in turn achieved an optimal balance of flexibility, strength, weight and durability due in large part because of the hundreds of small, open cells that provided cushioning and structure.
“There is potential that printed parts could be superior to the foam parts we’re making now,” said Katherine Petrecca, General Manager for Studio Innovation at New Balance. “But the future of on-demand manufacturing is also very attractive.”
The Zante Generate marked year of tireless work on behalf of the design team at New Balance whose initial attempts at crafting 3D midsoles resulted in products that "[felt] as brittle as uncooked pasta," in one reporters estimation.
The verdict: New Balance can place a feather in their cap for being the first. With that in mind, perhaps they can also be the first to provide a 3D product in less-than-limited quantities.
“One of the reasons that we wanted to put shoes into the market was to help push everybody forward,” Petrecca said, “and move this out of the lab and into the public view.”
The company boasts a team of 150,000 consumer testers to provide feedback from the John and Jill's of the world who can provide better assessments as it relates to the general public's usage.
“You can do lab testing, you can do finite element analysis of a design, but until you actually make something and get it under people’s feet, you don’t really understand how it’s going to perform,” Petrecca said.
Under Armour debuted 96 pairs of its UA Architech running shoes with a 3D-printed lattice structure midsole and 3D-printed upper design in March of 2016.
"This technology enabled us to develop a performance training shoe that was a hybrid of stability and cushioning," said Chris Lindgren, Vice President of Training and Outdoor Footwear at Under Armour. "3D printing is the only way to create the intricate lattice structure of the UA Architect's midsole that provides both of those properties."
Produced at their own version of Nike's Innovation Kitchen and adidas' SPEEDFACTORY - the Lighthouse - Under Armour has already recognized the importance of 3D printing despite still being the newest kid on the block.
The verdict: Under Armour is still trying to figure out if they want to challenge Nike as the thought leader in athletic performance, or if they want to continue to refocus their intentions on lifestyle products like adidas has.
The Architech suggests they view 3D printing as an advantageous tool in the sportswear realm - something that Nike has done better and longer than anyone else.