Multiple major shoe manufacturing corporations have been turning to 3D printing over the last couple of years. While 3D printed shoes aren’t filling shoe stores just yet, companies are being attracted to the technology for its design potential and customization possibilities. Now we’re in the age of the small series of exclusive 3D printing shoe. Earlier this year, Nike introduced the first shoe with a 3D printed upper, while New Balance has led the way with the first partially 3D printed shoe to be made commercially available. And in 2016, Reebok introduced the Liquid Speed shoe, which uses liquid developed by BASF to draw a frame directly onto the shoe. This allows for a tighter fit, and it’s pretty cool-looking, too.

The technique also does away with the traditional mold-driven process, which is expensive and time-consuming, and allows for localized production. Currently, nearly all athletic footwear is made in Asian factories due to the labor-intensive nature of the mold process, but thanks to Reebok’s 3D printing technology, the Liquid Speed shoe can be made anywhere, including in the company’s Liquid Factory, which is located in Rhode Island.

“The point of automation is to shorten the production cost and enable that automation,” said Chau Nguyen, Market Segment Manager for Footwear, PM North America, BASF. “So instead of a person sitting there and putting a sole on, they were able to dispense it in 3D on the part itself— that saved a lot of time.”

Reebok approached BASF, which it had worked with before, about creating a polyurethane material that it could use to create a unique outsole. BASF formulated a urethane-based liquid that could be drawn on to create an outsole that melds with the lacing on the shoe.

“We provide the material to Reebok that has the required rheology and reactivity to produce a part with no molds,” said Nguyen. “Look at it as if drawing with ketchup. When you draw with this material, it’s already curing, it’s already started to solidify.”

Comfort is key in any shoe (except some formal wear), but especially running shoes, where performance depends largely on how comfortably the shoe fits. The design of the Liquid Speed shoe allows for an especially secure and comfortable fit, according to Nguyen.

“In this case the outsole has wings on it and it wraps around to the sides of the shoe. You have tension at the top of your foot, and usually all of the materials are combined together,” he explained. “Well, in this case you have material attached to the sides, the medial and the lateral parts of your foot, so you get a more custom fit.”

Nguyen also calls the shoe the first high-rebound outsole. Until now, most outsoles have been made from rubber, but the polyurethane allows for better rebound.

“When you’re running, a certain amount of energy is going to the ground,” he said. “So, when you hit the ground, in this case, it absorbs the energy and then it returns it, that’s why it’s called high rebound.”

When the Liquid Speed shoe was first released in November, only 300 pairs were made, and they sold out within hours for $189.50 each. The first batch was so limited because Reebok was borrowing lab time, but now that it has opened its own Liquid Factory, there will be more extensive releases in the future. Reebok is working on additional footwear products with help from BASF, as well.

“The various chemistries provided by BASF—we have separate chemistries for cushioning, durability and support— are central to these creations,” said Bill McInnis, Head of Future at Reebok.

So keep an eye out for Liquid Speed to reemerge on the market before long, as well as some new developments from Reebok. As 3D printed shoes become more easily and frequently made, costs will likely go down as well, making them more accessible – Liquid Speed shoes are already relatively inexpensive compared to some of the other 3D printed shoes that have been released. Many of these other shoes have been made specifically for professional athletes, but Reebok seems to have the average consumer in mind.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below. 

[Source: BASF/Images: Reebok]

 

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