3D Scanning, 3D Printing, and the Business of Publishing Shoes


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A volunteer prepares to demonstrate the 3D scanning process for FitStation at the HP Global Innovation Summit

In today’s virtual world, stepping outside to take a breather and immerse oneself in nature is often a much-needed break from computers and the fluorescent lights of an office. That sort of immersion is enhanced for many people by taking a walk — and, increasingly, doing so while wearing footwear created with advanced technologies including immersive computing.

During the HP Global Innovation Summit earlier this month in Barcelona, after having heard more from HP and its partners working with the FitStation platform announced last summer, I appreciated the opportunity to sit down with Josh St. John, Head of Product, Immersive Computing at HP, and Eric Hayes, Chief Marketing Officer, Superfeet to hear more about progress in personalized footwear.

“We’ve seen progress made on 3D printing for lasts and molds,” Hayes told me, touching as well on the Flowbuilt facility announced shortly before our conversation. “That’s the catcher of the information that turns information from digital to physical. We have Multi Jet Fusion there and more; the intent of Flowbuilt is to make the products that FitStation uses. We use MJF for 3D printing of lasts, there’s the ability to adapt the shape of the shoe or insole to your foot.

“The magic of FitStation, where all the effort from Josh’s team and all comes in, is to take that data and make it into something that’s actually good for your body. If you take that static image and create a thing from it, it’s not helping your body; we wash it, we craft it into the shape your body needs to best benefit from it. Then we build a last and build a shoe around its shape for your body. The reason the wood-carved lasts went by the wayside is that they were expensive, they were used once and put by the wayside. There are a lof of people now; we can’t all have our own wood lasts in the back. With MJF, we print not only the lasts, but the unique parts. We print individual areas, apply that to traditional lasts, and can build the shoe around that.”

Hayes (left) and St. John

The FitStation work includes collaboration with DESMA, which Hayes noted requires molds made to go on their particular machines. As with effectively any mold, there are traditionally long lead times and high costs involved in creating molds via specialized mold makers. 3D printing allows for increasingly well-understood benefits in streamlining this process, reducing costs and times.

“MJF moves an $8,000 mold to maybe a $1,500 one. For the future, there’s potential use in development and then production. Compare that with a mold made from aluminum,” Hayes said. “With molding able to move from development to production, there’s potential for profit for outside shoe sizes for a company, for smaller brands that can expand to in-between sizes.”

The pain of having a nonstandard shoe size frequently extends beyond shoe store frustration, as finding a good fit often translates to a good-enough fit — which for those spending significant time on their feet is often not good enough at all. Line and service workers, hikers, runners, or anyone else relying on pedestrian mobility face a tough issue in seeking out the perfect shoes and insoles to keep them as comfortable as possible.

Shoes, St. John affirmed, should be optimized for fit.

“FitStation lets us quantify that, lets us create instructions for manufacturing. Brooks is developing a shoe, produced across the FitStation platform, that all comes down to optimizing the manufacturing infrastructure for it,” he said, touching on the personalized Genesys shoe that Brooks unveiled at the summit.

The partners involved in FitStation create a recommendation process to determine the best route to best fit. This process, Hayes added, offers a helpful approach for customers.

“The onus is entirely on the consumer right now to find what fits for them,” he told me. “FitStation takes that over, cuts the wheat from the chaff if you will, and provides a service, which is very important for the consumer. Designs are curated for the consumer. Curation and customization is the next step up.”

Operating at 29 retail pilot sites as of the time of our chat, St. John pointed to the offerings of FitStation when it comes to 3D scanning feet. Incorporating MJF 3D printing into the end-to-end FitStation platform, HP sees “an opportunity to scale the 3D printed insole business,” he said, as 3D printing custom insoles and orthotics enables a better, more personal fit.

This advanced solution in a platform approach enables not only a better ultimate fit and experience for the consumer, but a new way of thinking for footwear providers.

“Superfeet is 41 years old; we’ve launched a lot of products over the years,” Hayes said. “The ME3D product coming off Multi Jet Fusion has been the most successful product launch in Superfeet history; it has the lowest return rate, the highest rating, and the highest repeat purchase rate. The average Superfeet consumer owns three insoles, which tend to be disparate, think for casual, formal, and hiking shoes. Once they find ME3D, they want more ME3D, which is fantastic. The product itself just performs so much better, because we’re making it specific not just to you, but to your right foot and your left foot. Being able to customize this pair and tailor one for your left foot and one for your right foot, the overall satisfaction rating goes through the roof.”

Very few people are actually symmetrical, and it’s these small variations that give us personality — and can make finding the right fit additionally challenging. This is where 3D printing fits especially well, as the technology is seeing increasing use among a growing amount of businesses involved in the footwear sector.

“With all the applications we’re aware of, in dental, in jewelry, this is the application I’ve seen that’s ripest for it,” St. John said of footwear.

The coming together of footwear and 3D printing is attracting notice worldwide. Advances in the technological capabilities of additive manufacturing are seeing it situated as a strong contender for footwear applications, as materials are strong enough now to support weight in end-use products alongside the use of the technology to create lasts and molds for more traditional fabrication. Integration with advanced platforms incorporating 3D scanning and software support also make more possible.

“It’s not that we’ve been ignoring 3D printing for the last 25 years, it’s that 3D printing wasn’t ready yet to put the Superfeet name on it,” Hayes said of the company’s relationship with the technology.

“The data coming off Fitstation wasn’t there. MJF made it not just economical, but viable performance-wise for us to put our name on it. We’re very confident because of MJF and what the performance can do. Anyone can take a scan of a foot; it’s what you do with that data that matters. FitStation lets us manufacture off that data, and lets us do it at scale, turn it around, and deliver to the customer.”

Scale production and enabling new economies of manufacturing are among the key issues HP has sought to address with its Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing technology. That realizable benefits of these efforts are being acknowledged and put to use in real-world production is a strong statement to the viability of HP’s ambitious disruptive vision for industrial 3D manufacturing.

The 3D printed heelcap of a Superfeet insole

These visions are being brought to fruition not by MJF alone, of course, but through the integration of complementary technologies, including immersive computing.

“With immersive solutions, either the customer knows exactly what they want to do, like 3D scanning, or they have a problem they need to solve,” St. John told me. “With Superfeet and DESMA, two partners with great expertise and market reach, we bring in 3D printing, manufacturing, IT infrastructure, and distribution. Together, that relationship is able to be really strong, to reinvent manufacturing.”

Comparing use of MJF versus traditionallly made custom insoles, Hayes pointed to benefits such as adjusting flexibility and more design possibilities, “more custom tweaks.”

“This is digital craftsmanship, it’s digitization of craft,” St. John said. “It’s a way to publish shoes.”

Discuss HP, Multi Jet Fusion, the future of manufacturing, and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the Facebook comments below.

[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]


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