Last month, Nike introduced its next wave of football cleat innovation at the 2013 NFL Combine: new Nike Vapor Laser Talon, the first football cleat to use 3D printing technology. Two days ago, US athletic brand New Balance introduced a track-specific running shoe that uses 3D printing to customised spike plate on the sole of shoes that is supposed to enhance performance with every step.
For Nike and New Balance, 3D printing has helped improving design and production performance. Another two footwear companies, PUMA and Reebok, have also been using 3D printing in design and prototyping for a long time.
PUMA's top challenge was time. 3D printing help them to compress its design cycles and squeeze in more design iterations within limited time frames.
To reduce design time, PUMA has switched from outsourcing its prototypes to using an in-house Objet 3D Printer. "We realized that with the in-house Objet 3D printer we could perform more design iterations in less time," said Andy Chung, Tooling & 3D Engineer.
PUMA uses 3D printer in several stages of its footwear design. A prototype of a shoe sole is printed for the first design review; a second model is produced later in the process for the construction review; and a third model is generated for metal casting.
Before using 3D printer, prototype production takes usually 3-4 days. "It now takes a single day." said Andy Chung. "In terms of quality and accuracy, the Objet 3D printer allows us to evaluate footwear models for outsole fit by connecting the sole model produced by the Objet machine to the upper part of the shoe."
A second challenge was communication. Puma's global design and manufacturing teams are based in different countries. It is really crucial for to have the team members holding the same physical model to which they could all relate. PUMA has installed 3D printer in each of the sites. "Each team prints the same prototype model, so that when we have conference calls to discuss design and manufacturing issues, we are all on the same page. Each team is viewing and holding the exact same model, which allows us to communicate much more easily than before."
Since 1997, Reebok has been using 3D printing for prototyping. Leslie Langnau, editor of Make Parts Fast, discusses Reebok's use of 3D printers with Gary Rabinovitz, RP Lab Manager at Reebok recently.
In the beginning the biggest saving was time. The company wanted to get the product to the market as quick as possible. They purchased the first DTM Selective Laser Sintering printer 2500CI, it was immediately overloaded with prototyping work. Three months later they acquired their first Z Corp 3D printer. For Reebok, 3D printing has helped to save their design time tremendously.
According to Gary, the biggest key to change the footwear industry was when Z Corp came out with a full-color 3D printer. It is much easier for the company to communicate with customers, and customers tended to confirm the model much quicker than before. Reebok has now two Z Corp 3D printers and one Objet Connex in house running 18-20 hours a day, 5 days a week.
But the weakness is still there. "The weakness was to print flexible full-color. But at this point of time, nobody can do that." In addition, "The R&D (of 3D printer manufacturers) has really slowed down." The companies are focusing on pushing low-end 3D printers to home users.
3D printing technology is increasingly deployed within leading footwear companies to improve manufacturing performance and pursue customization at a new level. It is going to play an important role in both design and manufacturing, and will have a big impact on industry and society.
Posted in 3D Printing Applications
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