Last week was a huge week in both the $350B footwear industry and the 3D printing materials industries, when two companies I admire and respect, sports powerhouse Adidas and 3D molecular science sensation Carbon, announced the Futurecraft 4D performance shoe, Adidas’ second shoe to incorporate 3D printing in the midsole and the first they plan to move into mass production.
As the CEO and Co-Founder of Wiivv, a west coast-based company pioneering custom-fit, direct-to-consumer 3D-printed footwear from any smartphone (and known for our proprietary 3D customization software, computer vision technology, and adaptive manufacturing platform), I’ve received countless forwards of this announcement. The media wants to know what we think; investors want to know if we are being outflanked; friends want to make sure we’ve heard about it; and in general, people are asking if custom footwear incorporating 3D printing is finally happening now, at scale.
What I can tell you is this: yes, it’s for real. Technology companies like Carbon (SpeedCell), HP (Jet Fusion), 3D Systems (Figure 4) and GE have been working hard for years to bring the 3D printing of consumer products to the mainstream market. However, the industry at large and the major footwear brands have yet to fully capitalize on what we see as the true value of 3D printing: functional customization. Beyond aesthetics. True custom products at scale. No in-store foot scanners needed. For everyone, from anywhere.
You see, the footwear industry is like a canary in the coal mine for the shift that’s about to happen in other industries like apparel, sports gear, orthopedics, accessories, jewelry (and other product categories yet to be imagined). We are heading fast towards a custom-first, inventory-less, consumer-as-the-creator future. Consumers, business leaders, designers and investors all need to understand this, because it’s a sea change that’s going to affect us all.
Here is what I’m predicting for the $350B footwear industry between now and 2025:
1) Retail will become educational and experiential before it becomes on-demand
Like most of the CEOs and business leaders I’ve spoken with lately, we underestimated the sheer speed at which traditional retail is changing, if not crumbling. Once mainstay retailers like Sports Authority, EMS, American Apparel and Sport Chalet have all filed for bankruptcy, while Payless, Sears, Abercrombie and others have seen store closures at a rate that makes your head spin.
Retailers are left grasping for new, more experiential ways of driving in-store traffic and sales; Uniqlo, Ministry of Supply and Adidas have all recently announced (or have installed) machines to create 3D knitted products produced in-store while you wait.
While in-store 3D scanning and 3D printing holds the promise of a new value-added service, the biggest hurdle isn’t just cost of investment in equipment (though talking to specialty retailers, the last thing they want is new equipment overhead) or even manufacturing (which for most products requires an industrial, not a retail, environment, at least today). It’s our own need as consumers for instant gratification; so, unless the product is worth being patient for i.e. made for me, why would I wait a week to get my new shoes?
To be clear, I do think that eventually 3D printing and robotics will become part of the retail arsenal, but for the next 5-10 years the name of the game will be design, choose your items, and even buy in the store – but 3D printing supply chains and materials are not ready for on-demand fulfillment yet in-store.
Retailers need not to fret, 80% of shoes are still sold in-store (though rapidly moving online) – just be willing to evolve the experience and consider diversifying your spaces. Walmart.com and Amazon.com are already hybridizing fulfillment centers with retail environments; for the bespoke market, it will be easier to order them from your smartphone and get your products delivered quickly to your home or to the store where you might be picking up other things you need.
2) Supply chains will move local and become increasingly inventory-lessMeeting the new demand for custom-fit footwear and other products at speed will mean more local manufacturing to meet the need for quick delivery times. As much as we’d all like to be making more manufacturing local because we’re patriots, it’s also a business imperative to manufacture and deliver customer products quickly. Shoe factories in Georgia, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and North Carolina have already sprouted up and I commend companies like Nike, Adidas, Jabil, VF Corp, FIT AG, and MAS Holdings, among others, for leading the charge.
Currently, certain shoe brands take 21-42 days to manufacture a pair of shoes and deliver them to the US from Vietnam. Carbon is helping Adidas manufacture one (non-custom-fit) 3D midsole in 90 minutes. HP has made its way into several industry-specific strategic deals (including with Superfeet) and contract manufacturing networks.
So the natural first step is to embrace the supply chain shift and move things local—this will have to—and will—get faster, cheaper and smarter. The next step will be to embed custom in the 3D printing process, not just offer the value of enhanced material properties. This will be mean less inventory and a negative cash model that will make CFOs and investors elated.
3) Designers will start shoe brands in droves, consolidation is inevitable
Like the craft beer industry, footwear will witness many new brands emerge. I believe we are going to see these proliferate over the next decade, as new footwear designers become able to leverage technological innovation and offer small-batch, limited-edition and custom products. Nobody wants Budweiser when they can have something crafted to their taste or with a good back story.
The footwear business requires a lot of capital; some of those brands are going to succeed and some are going to fail. Just like Anheuser Busch did with a whole bunch of craft breweries, we’re going to see the big footwear players swallow up these new upstarts for market reach, technology and production capacity. Get excited though, because we are going to see some weird stuff emerge—it will be anything but boring!
4) The footwear industry will surpass $600B by 2025
Don’t be surprised if the footwear industry is close to doubling. The average American currently owns 19 pairs of shoes. Notably, the fastest-trending demographic are millennial men. The growing middle class in Asia and Africa, a new emphasis on wellness and high-performance, and increasing average selling prices brought about by eco-conscience and custom offerings will all compound unit volume and revenue.
Furthermore, if you count footwear-specific wearable tech into the market size, we are already seeing multiple companies creating new ways to collect body region-specific data from our feet. Smart footwear has a myriad of health, recovery, athletic and military applications yet to be fully fleshed out by the industry. Again, custom will have value in that it will enable more accurate data collection and synthesis.
5) Science and sustainability will finally matter
Adidas’ Futurecraft 4D shoe’s printed product will be optimized for performance and material properties, if not at this stage for custom fit. But it highlights the importance of science when it comes to making new materials and technologies like 3D printing matter to the consumer and enhance their lives, beyond the cool factor.
Over the next decade, companies who lead with function and biomechanics are going to be the winners as we drive up the Maslow hierarchy of needs and expectations with our footwear. Your footwear will be precisely engineered and eco-conscientious as features like foam and light weight will become mainstay. Furthermore, additive manufacturing a custom product is both resourceful and wasteful, if it is made only for you and can’t be passed on, then it stands to reasonable that you should be able to dispose of it in a way that net neutralizes your environmental impact.
Apple (PrimeSense), Microsoft, Intel (RealSense), and Google (Project Tango) are all spending millions right now developing 3D scanning on the phone. This will leapfrog the need for stagnant retail scanners and give the mobile device more capability. Computer vision on the smartphone will mean better data quality captured and therefore better outcomes possible: this will feed the custom-in-every-shoe trend. In fact, iOS and Android my will integrate body measurement as a mainstay feature into their platforms and that ecommerce companies and brands alike will be able to easily access those secure measurements to make custom goods. Scaling scan to 3D printable, body-enhanced file will also be a key ingredient in the mix.
We should all focus on enhancing people’s lives
The truth is, Louis-Victor and I started Wiivv to prove that biomechanically sound, scientifically validated, custom-fit, 3D-printed products that enhance people’s lives would—and could—change an industry. In other words, I’m counting on these predictions to happen. Traditional manufacturing techniques cannot match what’s coming. Our company has demonstrated shopping and creation convenience via mobile that retail cannot duplicate, as well as fast fulfillment (five days from scan-to-door to anywhere in USA) with which long supply chains cannot compete. This future is now, and it’s beginning with footwear.
It takes a village to flip an industry, and we are pleased to be a critical part of that village. It all adds up to improving the lives of our customers. Wiivv has over 15,000 customers (with an under 1% return rate) using our products and the software we all need to bring bespoke footwear to everyone. Call me—we are happy to collaborate.
On that note, let me conclude by congratulating Joe, Phil, team Carbon, and Adidas for making the leap and taking the risk. Search engines and internet cataloging started out lacking full efficiency and were hard to scale, until determined people and innovation changed that. 3D printing will have a similar trajectory; and one day we’ll have a hard time understanding how products were made without it.
I can’t help but muse daily, we are so lucky to be in an industry poised to help millions of people add active, meaningful years to their lives, starting from the ground up!
PS: To experience another recent step towards this future, I invite you to visit our Kickstarter campaign for the World’s First Custom Fit Sandals, digitally mapped from your smartphone. Biomechanically enhanced, 3D printed and assembled in San Diego, California.
What do you think about these predictions? Are 3D printed shoes the next big thing? Discuss in the Footwear Industry forum at 3DPB.com.
Shamil Hargovan (Forbes 30Under30) is the CEO and Co-Founder of Wiivv.
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