Dec 6, 2015 | By Benedict

Just over a fortnight ago, we took a look at New Balance’s new 3D printed running shoe, set to be unveiled at the 2016 Boston Marathon. For those 3D printed pumps, the internationally renowned footwear company sought the help of 3D Systems and its SLS 3D printing technology. Hot on the heels of that announcement, it looks as though New Balance will be calling upon further 3D printing expertise, as Somerville, Massachusetts based design studio Nervous Systems has just announced a partnership with the footwear giant in which the studio will help to perfect a 3D printed midsole.

“We have created proprietary systems to generate midsole designs from pressure data from runners, making it possible to create variable density cushioning that is customized to how a person runs,” explained Nervous Systems co-founder Jessica Rosenkrantz. “This ongoing project has given us a unique opportunity to apply our generative design techniques to a new domain.”

According to Rosenkrantz, New Balance approached the design studio with a particular request. The footwear company wanted to improve their 3D printed midsoles by utilizing a larger amount of performance data from test runners. Nervous Systems jumped at the chance to get on board with the exciting project, and the collaborative work has already begun. To design the perfect 3D printed midsole, New Balance commissioned Nervous Systems to examine pressure data from a runner’s foot strike. The design studio was given access to multiple sets of data collected at the New Balance Sports Research Lab in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Such data is collected using a set of floor sensors upon which the runner can step. The sensors are able to register the distribution of force across areas of the foot as it lands and then pushes off the ground.

Rather than rush to conclusions from the raw data, Nervous Systems have been tackling the problem philosophically. “There has been a lot of work lately looking at structural optimization in design such as Autodesk’s Dreamcatcher,” Rosenkrantz explained. “However, we quickly decided that wasn’t quite the right approach for this project.”

Unfortunately for New Balance, the solution to the problem of midsole design is not as intuitive as it may seem. Simply making the midsole denser in areas where more pressure is applied may not result in desirable effects, due to the foot being in constant motion and there being numerous physical aspects to consider. “We aren’t looking at a static load bearing structure, but one that has highly variable forces where the desired response might change over time,” Rosenkrantz explained. “Does the pressure on landing have the same significance as the push off pressure? Additionally, there’s still a lot about the physiology of running that we don’t understand. What function do we actually want the midsole to have? If we can’t come up with a precise numerical definition for that, we can’t optimize for it.”

With these limitations in mind, Nervous Systems decided to create a 3D printed platform, a “highly controllable anisotropic, macroscopic foam structure”, which could be quickly tested and modified depending on runner response. “Foam structures are three-dimensional arrays of cells,” said Rosenkrantz. “They have a low relative density and are highly porous giving them the unique property of being both lightweight and strong. While man-made foams are rather uniform, the foams we see in nature like wood and bone are highly variable in scale and direction, enabling specific material properties in different zones. We wanted to use the running data to design foams that geometrically adapt to different forces.”

Nervous Systems also explored other ways of interpreting the data in a midsole. "One series of experiments explored generating directional structures for the midsole that follow the gradient of the pressure data. We wanted to look at how the midsole could more explicitly mirror the data used to generate it. The lines accentuate how the pressure data reflects the anatomy of the foot, revealing maxima in the heel, forefoot, and toes."

The studio has already printed a range of 3D printed prototypes for the 3D printed midsole, and its design could be incorporated into a future range of New Balance running shoes. A customized version of the sneaker behemoth’s 3D printed shoe will debut in 2017, after the unveiling of the first batch at the 2016 Boston Marathon.




Posted in 3D Printing Application



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