From the Feet Up: Innovation in 3D Printed Footwear

Dec 12, 2016

Innovation Researcher Sophia Platts-Palmer speaks to Lucy Beard, Founder and CEO of 3D printed footwear company Feetz and explores the ways shoe brands are implementing 3D printing tech.


Recent advancements in material science have enabled brands and start-ups to explore the possibilities of 3D printed fashion, and many, logically enough, have started from the feet up. At present, shoe sizing is done in 10 half-integer measurements and only takes into account the length of a person’s foot. Whilst many brands do offer traditionally manufactured styles for wide feet, these ranges are often limited.

However, in 2014 New York fashion brand Continuum Fashion spotted an opportunity and launched Myth: a distinctive geometric wedge sandal for women, and the world’s first 3D printed shoe line. 90% of the components in the Myth range are 3D printed on a desktop printer demonstrating the increasingly accessible nature of the technology. The company has trialled 30 different materials through the range’s design process, including wood composite and carbon fibre, and has since released a number of product ranges including different styles of printed shoe, and a 3D printed bikini.

Continuum Fashion's Daphne shoe

Continuum Fashion’s Daphne shoe

“Designing with 3D printing must not seek to merely replicate existing products, but to design better products than what is currently possible,” company founder Mary Huang writes on Continuum’s website. “Significantly, the urethane soles on the shoes are also 3D-printed. So, these designs are a virtually zero-waste product.”

Taking this concept further, American newcomer Feetz calls itself a ‘Digital Cobbler’ and is the first company to print shoes in their entirety.

It’s not feasible for people to laser scan their feet at home, so customers instead download the Feetz app and take three photographs of each of their feet. From the photographs, their proprietary SizeMe software maps over 5000 data points across the foot, complimented by the personal metrics consumers upload. The shoes are then printed over a period of 6-8hrs (for a woman’s shoe) and shipped, with a price point of $199 (£158) for women and $249 (£198) for men.

Beard told GDR that the time it takes to print a pair of their shoes has decreased by a third within a year, and the company expects to be rolling the tech out in retail outlets within the next two years. They have recently established a partnership with DWS Inc. – a leading US footwear retailer – to bring the technology to a mass consumer base and reduce the carbon footprint from postage. The intention is that once in-store, the machines will be printing customised shoes within an hour, allowing shoppers to scan their feet, go shopping and an hour later collect their personalised shoes.

“I was tired of tired of trying on shoe after shoe” Beard told GDR, “and whilst stopping off at Starbucks, I wondered why my coffee was more customisable than my footwear.”

“3D printing is the key to a more sustainable world,” said Beard. “In ten years time, there will be no need to try anything on again; data can do it for us. We will be able to stream our style from a closet in the cloud.”

Sporting brands are the current market leaders in the 3D printed footwear space with market leaders such as Nike and Adidas establishing laboratories for developing new technologies, materials and manufacturing methods.

Nike launched the Nike Vapor Ultimate Cleat in 2014- a football boot using a form of 3D knitting, and in 2016 New Balance debuted their 3D printed midsole designed to enhance athletic performance. The Zante Generate range features a 3D printed midsole developed by New Balance’s internal team and generative design studio Nervous System. 44 limited edition pairs of the Zante Generate shoes were retailed for $400 at the New Balance Experience store in Boston.

In 2015, Adidas launched the Futurecraft programme in partnership with Materialise, a specialist 3D printing company in Germany. Futurecraft is an innovation studio dedicated to trialling sustainable methods of sportswear manufacturing, ranging from 3D printed midsoles to biodegradable spider silk material.

After first releasing a personalised midsole in 2015, the programme continues to release innovative designs and concept trainers including the Ultraboost Uncaged Parley, a shoe made from recycled marine plastic.

Challenger brand Under Armour has also released UA Architech, a performance training shoe featuring a 3D-printed midsole. Like their competitors, Under Armour’s goal is to serve athletes by offering custom-made soles to offer support and optimise performance.

The technology can also have medical applications. Sols is a New York-based company that 3D print orthotic insoles. The company follows a similar model to Feetz: the customer photographs their feet, inputs their metrics and a personalised pair of orthopaedic shoes are delivered to the customers door a few weeks later.

As mass customisation technology moves into the mainstream, product prices will drop, material science will offer more sustainable options and the traditional supply chain will be disrupted. 3D printers enable consumers to have low cost, completely personalised shoes (and apparel) that not only make the shopping experience more seamless but also offer a multitude of health and wellness benefits.

3D printers also open up opportunities for brands and retailers. We have seen in-store automation and 3D printing on a small scale in pop-ups by sportswear brands, in stores such as Alp Stories (an automated store selling 3D printed makeup in the Czech Republic), and the technology offers engaging point-of-sale retail theatre. As the technology develops and brands begin to include it in their manufacturing processes, the demand for point-of-purchase personalisation will undoubtedly increase. Brands will be able to sell CAD designs to be printed in-store or even at home. The prospect also opens a discourse on personal data and metrics collection for brands. Before long, customers will expect to walk into a store, order a product to their exact specifics and watch it being made in front of them.

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