We’ve seen 3D printed shoes made from recycled materials before, but not a true pair of running shoes yet. But New Zealand design engineer Rik Olthuis is working to change that. The 22-year-old Massey University graduate has long had a passion for designing shoes, and designed a pair of completely biodegradable athletic shoes in 2019, during his senior year. Now, he’s received a prestigious honor that could help him turn his dream of sustainable footwear into reality: Olthuis is a national winner of the James Dyson Award.
Run by the James Dyson Foundation charitable trust, this is an international design award that, according to the website, “celebrates, encourages and inspires the next generation of design engineers” and is open to current and recent design engineering students.
“We could design whatever we wanted and I wanted to design a useful shoe for today’s market,” Olthuis said. “I was also aware of the push for sustainability within the industry.”
According to the NZ Herald, the number of pairs of shoes produced in the world has gone up from seven billion in 1950 to a whopping 23 billion today. Conversely, Olthius states on his website that on average, a person will throw out 31.8 kg of clothing and shoes each year, which is obviously a lot of waste. 85% of that number goes straight to landfills, and shoes made the way they are now won’t fully compost for over 50 years. That’s why, Olthius says, “there needs to be an alternative to the current shoe materials to break the shoe life line.”
“The use of adhesives prevents the separation and treatment of materials at the end of the product’s life cycle,” he explained. “I was inspired to design a sneaker using only biodegradable materials with no adhesives.”
Olthuis wants to make sure that more people are considering what exactly happens to our shoes once we toss them out, which is why he was inspired to create his own pair of compostable shoes without using any adhesives, like glue. He zeroed in on the popular athleisure market, which is continuing to grow.
“It’s a running shoe but the line is blurred between athletic and casual. I wanted it to be comfortable, sporty and still casual,” he explained.
“The footwear market is very fussy, it’s constantly evolving.”
The first step was to replace the blown polyurethane typically used to make sneakers, and he did so by creating a biodegradable foam, based in gelatin and glycerin, with which to make the shoes. Other natural ingredients, such as corn flour and water, were added to the mixture in order improve water resistance and strength. Olthuis named his creation Voronoi Runners, after the Voronoi pattern featured on the sole and midsole, and 3D printed these parts from his biodegradable filament; the shoe’s upper features 3D printed details, but is made out of merino wool.
While coming up with the final design (created using Rhino paired with Grasshopper) that he submitted for the Dyson Award, he 3D printed 15 individual shoes, and managed to keep the cost of production to a minimum, spending only about $100 to make one pair. It takes about one day to 3D print each shoe, and the shoe can be disassembled at the end of its lifespan. Without adhesives, every component and material used to make Voronoi Runners can be composted later—even the wool.
“It is difficult trying to design something long-lasting in terms of trends,” Olthuis said. “Sustainable fashion has got to be explored as we’re becoming more aware of it.”
As a national winner of the award, Olthuis will receive NZ$3,500, which he will use to help test the strength and form of his biodegradable filament. But more than that, it’s helping him get his work noticed in a wider market.
“It’s a really good opportunity to get your work out there as there’s not a lot of risk involved,” he said. “And it’s awesome to have the opportunity to get feedback from a brand like Dyson.”
The international winner will receive a total of $35,000, and $6,000 for their university…a sum like that could really help Olthuis spread the word about his 3D printed Voronoi Runners.
The New Zealand part of the Dyson Award competition was judged by engineer Sina Cotter Tait; founder and CEO of the Sustainable Business Network Rachel Brown ONZM; and Dr. Michelle Dickinson (aka Nanogirl).
Dr. Dickinson thought it was a great idea to use gelatin in the foam, stating “Allbirds has proven that there is a growing market for sustainability focused product innovation so this could be the perfect time for this product.”
In fact, according to his Dyson Award entry, Olthuis was “Largely inspired by the Allbirds sneakers” in his design for the Voronoi Runners. Another judge, Brown, said that fashion still “has a long way to go” in terms of sustainability, and that the design for the Voronoi Runners was “encouraging to see.”
Brown continued, “I was really impressed by the holistic approach taken and the way Rik had thought about the full life cycle from its material choice and eliminating nasty adhesives, to production via 3D printing and then thinking through what happens to these shoes at the end of life.
“I would love for my sports-mad son to be able to purchase a training shoe like this.”
Olthuis and the other two finalists from New Zealand will now move up to the competition’s international phase. A panel of Dyson engineers will put together a top 20 list of designs, to be announced on October 15th, and British inventor Sir James Dyson will select the international winner and the sustainability winner, both of which will be announced November 19th. Olthuis is in good company, as the Dyson Award has been given to 3D printed innovations in the past, so here’s hoping he can join the club.
According to a SmarTech Analysis report, 3D printing for footwear is expected to reach revenues up to $4.2 billion by the year 2025, and that “large-scale mass production” of 3D printed footwear components is coming soon. Additionally, Voronoi Runners look like shoes I would actually wear, which I can’t say about all 3D printed shoes. So it seems like Olthuis is running in the right direction.
(Images: Rik Olthius)
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