‘Could this customized sole kick-start a sneaker revolution?’
On April 15th, 9:00am (EST) New Balance launched its first sneaker with a3D printed sole named Zante Generate, with only 44 pairs available. The sneakers are beautiful, organic and ultra light weight, and the best part, they are custom made, based on running data of professional athletes. For this shoe project New Balance collaborated with Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, owners of the design company Nervous System. Could this customized sole kick-start a sneaker revolution?
Jessica and Jesse are visionary designers, programmers and 3D-printing experts. Their work is a part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Nervous System’s design process is highly unconventional; they don’t design final products. Instead, they design growth structures and have the computer design the final outcome. It’s like the work Mother Nature does for us, when we plant a seed. You know the shape your broccoli will have, but you never know exactly how it turns out. This biomimicry-based design process is a different galaxy when compared to the marketing-driven 3D printed projects that pop-up everywhere these days. We talked to Jessica at the Amsterdam FITC event and explored the competitive world of 3D-printed footwear.
Sneaker brands usually do collaborations with designers and studios to work on a whole shoe…you’re doing ‘just’ the sole. How did this come up?
New Balance had already been working on this project for quite some time. It was a project that involved integrating 3D printing and data to make structures. They needed development of software; a type of software that we work with too, for customization and geometrical structures. They had a very strong idea about what they wanted us to do and to us it seemed like it was a very good application of our skills. We felt we could take it to the next level.
How do you think the shoes and the comfort factor have turned out?
I have sort of walked around in a pair but they haven’t made a pair in my size, actually. My partner Jesse has got a pair though. The response of the runners who have been testing them is that they are very comfortable and cushiony and nice.
Could you go crazy with the design of the sole?
They gave us some clear starting points. They wanted us to work off a shoe that they already make. We knew we didn’t have to design a whole shoe; we just had to focus on converting pressure data to a midsole with responsive cushioning. From the very beginning we actually had one specific idea about this variably density cellular structure, but they told us to explore and propose whatever we came up with. So we did a few designs. The great thing about 3D printing is that we can just print out all of these different structures. There’s no investment in some sort of tools in order to make soles with different structures. Anything that we can imagine, we can print. And with this project, we could put it directly on an upper and have it physically tested by an athlete.
What 3D-print technology and materials did they offer you to work with?
There were some pretty strong limitations there. We knew it was going to be printed with a specific technology, SLS, which is a technology we normally don’t work with. Furthermore, it would be printed on machines that they have in their factory in Massachusetts. We could see the machines and we got to work with the technician and the plastics engineer. It was supposed to be printed in a particular material, a new rubber like elastomer material.
We see a lot of different, beautiful sole patterns on your website. Why did the bone-like structure ‘win’?
This final design is very efficient, it uses the minimum amount of material. The whole point of the project is that alle sneakers now have uniform cushioning; it’s everywhere as much as the point of the highest impact, but you don’t need that amount of cushioning on every part. So, you’re carrying around all this extra material that you don’t really need. Ideally, by using this method you can produce a sole that is more efficient and less heavy.
What’s the difference between New Balance and the other brands currently using 3D printing for their shoes?
What’s so great about New Balance’s project is that they’re trying to do something not as a concept project but as something real. They’re actually making and selling these shoes. A lot of people just want to get press by saying ‘look, we’re working with 3D printing’ but they’re not willing to actually take it to market.
What is the best thing about using 3D printing technology for shoes?
It’s much more freeing than the traditional shoe making process which involves making all of these moulds. Moulds have to be made for every single size, so they’re very expensive. Furthermore, the commonly used injection moulding is traditionally done abroad, for instance in a factory in Asia, from which the elements have to be shipped back here. With the New Balance process, the shoe can be made at the factory in Massachusetts, from start to finish. Thats very fast.
And eventually they can be printed directly in the shop of course.
Yes, that would be ideal.
What needs to change in the conventional shoe design process to adopt true customization?
The problem is that the entire shoe business is based on manufacturing things on lasts. A last is a very specific shaped component, which has been developed over a very long period of time. Furthermore, all of the components of the shoe are physically pressed and steamed and stitched on the last. So, when you start thinking about not using lasts anymore, you would have to change the entire production system. That may open up more possibilities too, as some parts may be replaceable or reusable.
And then they also have to figure out how to capture customer data to create a truly customized product. That change is going to take even more time than just introducing a 3D printed shoe.
People who buy shoes have to adapt too. They now choose from what is on the store shelves, but in the new system, they’ll have to wait for their choice of product to be produced.
When can we expect this revolution to truly kick-off?
The 3D printing revolution is not here yet. We don’t have printers allover the place, that people are using to manufacture their own goods. Patenting is one of the biggest problems in the 3D printing space. For every new 3D printer that comes out, the manufacturing company gets sued by one of the other major 3D printing companies that have a lot more revenue than the smaller ones, so it’s hard for them to survive. Because of the patents, every technology is completely locked down, also materials technology. For New Balance we used this rubber like material (MH: DuraForm Flex TPU by 3D Systems, which is something that would also work really well for flexible clothing, but the material is just not that accessible due to the patents. New Balance has access to it, but me personally, I don’t have access to it for my own designs, I only have access through them. Companies like New Balance do so much legwork for years in advance to make sure they can even pursue 3D printing projects. So it’s sort of understandable that they patent it, but it doesn’t speed up the revolution.
What will be the next step for Nervous System and New Balance?
We have ideas about shoes, sure, but I can’t really talk about other things that we’re working on with them. Right now we’re just making a component that goes into a completely normal shoe, but part of the whole idea of having a customized product is that you have somet hing that really fits your foot. So why not use the 3D scan of somebody’s foot and make the entire shoe customized? New Balance definitely seems committed to doing that.