Oct 21, 2016 | By Alec

While 3D printed outfits and accessories have been revolutionizing fashion runways all over the world, shoe developers have been struggling a bit more with the 3D printing challenge. And that’s very unfortunate, as 3D printing could offer a solution to the ever-growing mountain of non- recyclable shoes we are assembling. The problem is that 3D printing something that is comfortable, durable, fashionable and perfectly fitting is surprisingly difficult.

But footwear 3D printing can take on more than one shape, as Reebok is now proving. Using a custom liquid material 3D printing method to produce just one portion of the sole for the new line of Reebok Liquid Speed sneakers, the footwear giant is sharing a glimpse of a future in which manufacturing can take place in the west again. In fact, these 3D printing activities will be housed in a new Liquid Factory that will open its doors in Lincoln, R.I in early 2017. It looks like footwear production is finally coming back to the U.S.

This is quite remarkable, because the fundamental footwear business model has stayed the same for roughly 30 years, with production being systematically outsourced to East Asian countries. Reebok is now thus partially reversing that trend for this new line of sneakers, the soles of which will be 3D printed using their custom liquid material and 3D drawing approach – developed in collaboration with footwear specialist AF Group Inc. At this new Lincoln-based factory, Reebok’s team will not only be producing these parts, but will also experiment with other 3D printing processes and footwear customization – doing so at a faster pace than through the current footwear mold process that is housed in China.

As Reebok’s Head of Future Bill McInnis revealed, this is just the first step towards their ideal manufacturing system. “Getting faster and closer to the consumer is 100% what we are after,” he said. “If you can take out shipping and [making] molds that take time to formulate, it moves you closer to the consumer.” While McInnis didn’t reveal exactly how he envisioned the future of footwear manufacturing, it’s all part of a long-term approach to manufacturing that encourages innovation. “If you were to start a shoe company tomorrow, how would you do it?” he wondered.

In Reebok’s case, it was determined that the shoe molds are holding back innovation with their high costs, and their time-consuming, material wasting manufacturing process. What’s more, those molds are often made in Asia, resulting in significant shipping costs. In an attempt to eliminate molds altogether, the company therefore developed a brand new 3D printing process that relies on a urethane-based liquid developed by chemical giant BASF.

The first results of this new process are the limited run of Reebok Liquid Speed sneakers. Only 300 will be manufactured, priced at $189.50 a pair. But they look fantastic, thanks to the liquid 3D printing technology used to shape the futuristic sole lines. “Liquid Speed is an energy return-focused running shoe that also brings the outsole and lacing together in one piece for a comprehensive feel and sensory feedback for the entire foot,” Reebok says of the remarkable shoes. The sneakers were also designed and assembled within the U.S., involving the RAMPF Group in Wixom, MI. – hinting at a future where domestic production will once again be possible.

So how were they developed? The shoes were designed using CAD technology, while BASF’s proprietary liquid material was used to build these soles without the use of any traditional molds. The manufacturing process can be seen in action in the YouTube clip below. “With this new process, we were able to program robots to create the entire shoe outsole, without molds, by drawing in layers with a high-energy liquid material to create the first ever energy-return outsole, which performs dramatically better than a typical rubber outsole,” McInnis revealed. To ensure a unique fit, the outsoles are stretched around the foot.

Of course, most of the shoe is manufactured using traditional methods, unlike competing footwear from Under Armour, Nike or Adidas. But as McInnis revealed, Reebok doesn’t want to go all the way with 3D printing right now due to cost and time concerns. “Liquid drawing is our idea of taking 3D printing to a different place,” he says. “One of the most exciting things about Liquid Factory is the speed. We can create and customize the design of shoes in real time, because we’re not using molds - we’re simply programming a machine. Liquid Factory is not just a new way of making things, it’s a new speed of making things.”

Nonetheless, these developments will be very good for the American job market. Aside from this one factory, Reebok believes that more similar manufacturing hotspots can be established close to their consumers – allowing for fast response and customization. “It isn’t just about the U.S., it is local-for-local globally,” McInnis adds. If all goes well, the Liquid Speed will be the first in a long line of increasingly 3D printed Reebok shoes.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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I.AM.Magic wrote at 10/24/2016 11:04:32 AM:

Yes, "3D"... cool stuff.

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