3d printed shoe soles that return to nature

The Zeitgeist has arrived: 3D Printed Shoe Soles

(image by Roger Price)

One of the spaces where 3D printing has the most potential for immediate impact is in footwear. In the past year we have seen various announcements about 3D printed shoe soles and inlays including Kickstarter campaigns, and major players like Nike and Adidas. 3D Printing has hit a tipping point in the field in terms of print quality and material stability.

In many ways, it is a bit of a surprise that the adoption of 3D printing footwear has had a relatively late adoption. Our feet, probably more than many of our other body parts, are uniquely shaped. And we can all probably point to sticking with certain brands simply because the shape of their shoe matched the shape of our foot, irrespective of the style or color of the shoe. And there are at least the same number of women that have chosen a shoe based on the style or color only to have their “individualized” foot suffer the consequence of that decision.


Short Lifespan of Shoes

(image by Sia Chang)

But shoes also have a second unique marker in terms of clothing and that is the rate they are worn through. Most runners will recommend switching out shoes after 500 miles (800 km). Depending on how far you are running per week, that can be as often as every 3-6 months. Shoes that are worn on a daily basis often don’t fare too much better, depending on the activity of wear a shoe sole can often be worn to replacement within 1-2 years.

What becomes of the waste?


A Vision for the Future of Footwear

3D printed shoe soles from SLEM institute
(image courtesy of SLEM)

The Netherland-based SLEM institute, one of the thought leaders in terms of footwear from both design and production. They took the lead in approaching the problems of sustainability and automated, individualized production. In 2015, they presented at the GDS Trade Show in Düsseldorf as the only company presenting industrial-grade shoe production using 3D printing. In 2016, they wanted to set the bar a notch higher with the question – how can we continue to customize footwear with 3D printed shoe soles and become a sustainable alternative to current production.

The answer came from the German-based producer of WillowFlex, the world’s first flexible 3D print filament from compostable raw materials. Their Kickstarter Campaign in late 2015 was the first time that objects like 3D printed shoe soles could be both sustainable and flexible. That opened the door to be used for producing 3D printing those shoe soles.

In preparation for the trade show, SLEM 3D printed a series of shoe soles in their trends lab and experimented with printing directly into the fabric to show the potential for melding design and 3D printing in a single production step.

“WillowFlex was an easy material to work with and printed as well as the other chemical based flexible filaments we have been working with. We look forward to working with WillowFlex to improve the long-term durability of the material to prepare for production.”

Nicole van Enter, Creative Director, SLEM

The current production is still only ready for prototypes to verify the settings and best practices of working with WillowFlex. But there is no question that sustainable materials will continue to grow as part of the palette in footwear production.


SLEM as a Guiding Light

SLEM is recognized as a thought leader in the footwear industry, and their early adoption of Industrial 3D Printing and Robotics to produce shoes has put them on the watch-list for the footwear industry. That is why their emphasis on moving towards sustainable materials has also garnered attention on the trade-show floor. The proof of concept reflects a general trend of the maturity and logic fit for 3D printed shoe soles.

SLEM automated production of 3D printed shoe soles
3D printed shoe soles (image courtesy of SLEM)

“WillowFlex is founded on the knowledge that sustainable materials can equal or out-perform the conventional alternatives. Working with forward thinking groups like SLEM helps to move the needle of public perception towards acceptance. Experimentation with vision is a key to progress.”

Brian Crotty, Owner and CEO, WillowFlex

Like with the organic food movement, the consumer pressure for products that reflect a social and environmental responsibility continues to grow. Companies that are first to meet that “demand” will have a distinct advantage in sales. As production systems mature for 3D Printed shoe soles, it will provide a direct competition to traditional production and marketing methodologies in specific markets and applications like orthopedics.

The partnership of WillowFlex and SLEM shows the synergy that comes from matching design quality, customer needs, customization and environmental awareness.

About SLEM

SLEM is an international innovation and education institute for footwear. The name is an acronym that stands for Shoes, Leather, Education, Museum. We are providing a unique full-time Master program for Footwear Innovators and a wide range of short courses and workshops for both students and professionals.

Their programs are all based on the synergy of four main pillars: forecasting, design, technology and business. The forecasting and business programs are suitable for other kinds of industries as well, such as leather goods, fashion and industrial design.

SLEM’s trend lab is at the heart of all our activities; the continual research and analysis assure that all programs always offer the very latest information, presented by visionary experts from the field. SLEM also provides trend information and consulting to customers around the world, through custom made projects and (online) SLEMinars.

SLEM’s headquarters are based in Waalwijk, in the south of the Netherlands, but they also have branches and affiliates in New York, China and Italy.

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