I was recently asked to write an article on 3D printing and it’s impact on the footwear industry. It’s something I myself, though I’m not an expert by any means, have followed and worked with in a fairly in-depth capacity for the past few years. It’s something I actively use in the design and development of most of my footwear projects as it offers unparallelled creative freedom and shortens time-lines. I actually wrote an article on the Pros & Cons of 3D printing in the footwear industry for Complex back in 2013. It’s amazing to think how much 3D printing has progressed in just 2 short years since. With insane Terminator inspired 3D printers available that can work up to 100x faster than current machines, it seems the true potential of 3D printing is only just beginning to be seen.
So how can we harness this tech for footwear? Better yet, why should we use it for footwear?
Well, all I can say is, unless you want to be seriously left behind, you better start getting yourself familiar with the 3D world. So, because I care, I’ve broken down some of the truly revolutionary aspects of 3D printing, what programs are good to use, how we can utilize this tech for the footwear industry and most importantly, why we should.
Up until very recently, there was a huge flaw in 3D printing. It was essentially 2D printing, with each layer being built up, one 2D layer on top of another, until something 3D was created. What this did was leave the model strong on one axis, but incredibly weak from another. Producing moulds the traditional way creates objects that are inherently strong throughout it’s entire structure, no matter the axis. What this essentially meant was, 3D was not at all viable for production (at-least not in footwear). However with the announcement of Carbon3D‘s Terminator inspired printer, and companies like Formlabs, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
Building on the current 3D printing technique which uses photosensitive resin and a laser to cure it into a solid, these companies use a process called Continuous Liquid Interface Production. What CLIP does is use laser light to cure along with oxygen to inhibit the process—allowing it to actually print in 3 dimensions at once. This is huge. This means the print is strong from every axis, no weak points.
Unfortunately, flexible prints aren’t yet available using this printing technique. If the speed at which 3D printing has progressed so far is anything to go by though, it shouldn’t be too long until it is.
3D printing allows us to really get creative with our sole designs. It has none of the confines attributed to the usual sole moulding techniques and can print incredibly complex structures. With the combination of the newly developed CLIP printing process, the potential for creating incredibly intricate, strong (and quickly printed) soles is undeniably exciting.
Currently, creating sole moulds is something pretty much every single brand has to outsource. Generally to a country in Asia. If 3D printing continues to evolve at an exponentially increasing rate, and we can find a way to bring the cost of 3D printing down, I feel certain the viability of actually mass producing prints locally will occur at some point in the very near future. And this is absolutely brilliant for everyone involved (except those old mould factories of course). It stimulates the local economy, creates less of a carbon footprint (as it pertains to shipping at least), allows younger, less liquid, brands a shot at creating their own, complex moulds (no need for whoring out public ones) and you also can print as and when you need the soles made. No minimum order requirements, no costly warehousing and no expensive moulds.
Not to mention, 3D printing is an additive process. This means you only use what you need, which is a stark contrast to a current footwear development model that is incredibly wasteful.
The issue with footwear and using 3D programs to create footwear, is that they are a mixture of hard and soft modelling. The sole being hard, and the upper (generally) being soft. Most 3D programs are generally a lot better at one of these styles of modelling than the other (think creating a robot in 3D (hard modelling) compared to making human like characters in 3D (soft modelling)).
At the current time, it’s fair to say that concentrating on the Sole is for sure the easiest way of utilizing 3D printing for footwear, which brings me to…
I myself learned my 3D skills in SolidWorks, which is a great program for hard modelling, it also has a history tree so you can always go back and fix your model if you managed to fk it up somehow. The issue here being, Solidworks is not cheap by any means. In general, 3D programs are not cheap. However, don’t lose all hope just yet. Rhino currently offers a free version for Mac, and there’s also a program called Blender that some of my peers are using that they appear to swear by, which is also completely free. There are of course a plethora of other programs you can use, most being offered by Auto Desk (though most only run on Windows) and there are a few footwear specific programs like Delcam Crispin.
‘Soft’ Modelling Programs
If you’re feeling confident, you could give soft modelling a shot. I’d suggest having a good handle on the programs previously mentioned though before venturing over to this side of things. I’m far more comfortable with Hard modelling, however programs like Z-Brush and it’s potential for footwear modelling is something I think is pretty exciting. Imagine being able to create a gesture based 3D model, concentrating more on aesthetics and form language, rather than having everything correspond to exact measurements. Of course, for certain areas, precise measurements are needed (particularly in more sport/functional footwear). In general though, I think we can say being totally precise for most shoes isn’t totally necessary (at least at an early stage, etc…). I’m sure a lot of older heads are heated for me saying that, but hear me out. Imagine creating a 3D model by purely making it look as good as possible, not worrying about measurements initially, just free forming around a last…surely that’s how we create sketches and renderings anyway, correct? Once the model has been created, then the measurements can be taken from the model, rather than trying to do it the other way around (which is the current method of render to tech-pack to sample development).
There are numerous 3D printing online services. I personally use Shapeways most of the time as they have a brilliant selection of materials to print in (from flexible filament, to gold). Though you should be prepared to wait a couple weeks to receive your print. If you don’t want to wait that long, you can of course just buy your own printer (which isn’t as crazy as it sounds believe it or not). MakerBot offers brilliant little printers from around $1500 and up, or if you want to utilize the CLIP printing process previously mentioned, you can get a FormLab printer for just over $3500.
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