3D Printing Shoes – Gimmick or Genius?

What if we told you that your next pair of athletic shoes could come straight out of a 3D printer?  Sounds crazy?  Maybe a little bit, but what began as a novel design idea could be the next advance in footwear personalization and customization.

UA Architech 7 - 3D printed sneaker
photo credit: kicksonfire.net

The 3D Printed Shoes Concept

Under Armor wasn’t even making athletic shoes just a few short years ago, yet the Baltimore-based company now finds itself at the forefront of a design revolution.  Alan Guyan, Director, Design & Manufacturing Innovation at Under Armor was hiking one weekend and became inspired to create 3D printed shoes as he observed tree roots.

Guyan observed the upward expansion of the roots, their structure, and the way that they could support a great deal of weight. He set out to create a lighter shoe, with woven systems, using 3D printing technology.  Guyan employed a concept called generative design to the creation of these groundbreaking shoes.

Generative design allows the shoe designers and engineers to employ an algorithm to investigate various structure possibilities for the shoe.  This helps them to better tailor 3d-printed footwear using structures that are more lightweight by eliminating unnecessary parts.  The new performance training shoe, named the “UA Architect,” was an instant hit.

UA 3D Architech - Under Armour
UA Architech – photo credit: UnderArmour.com

A Marketing Scheme Turned Business Model

The UA Architect was produced in a limited run of under 100 pairs, priced at $299 each, which sold out in short order.  While some believed that the 3D-printed shoes were nothing more than a marketing stunt, the company is out to prove that these products could be the next frontier for performance shoe designers.  In fact, the company plans to release a second line of 3D printing shoes shortly.

Taking it to the Next Level

Under Armor is hinting at another run of the UA Architect, although these types of shoes are not set up for mass manufacturing.  In the next release, they are promising availability of more than 100 pairs, more color choices, and even a variety of styles.  If you tuned into the Olympics this year, you might have even caught a glimpse of several 3D-printed shoes.

Under Armor provided Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps with a pair of custom 3D-printed shoes for the Olympics.  Based on its UA Architect brand, these unique shoes had Olympic colors and had the imprint of his son Boomer’s footprint in the insole.

Adidas Futurecraft 3D
Adidas Futurecraft 3D – photo credit: YouTube.com

Adidas has also entered the 3D shoe market with its “Futurecraft” brand of shoes.  In early August, the company announced that it would be awarding certain Olympic athletes with a pair of their highly-breathable shoes, which they renamed the “3D Printed Winners Shoe.”  The shoe’s laces would reflect the athlete’s success, i.e. – gold, silver, or bronze.

While these shoes can’t be mass produced yet, their technology continues to be developed, and there is a race on among major athletic shoe companies for market share.  Current competitors include Nike, Adidas, New Balance, and Under Armour.  In the future, some companies are promising consumers a completely customized process.  Walk into your athletic shoe store, design your ideal pair of shoes on their screen, get fitted, and then have those shoes created just as a high-dollar tailor would create a bespoke suit.