In an attempt to appeal to design-conscious consumers, major athletic shoe brands like Nike and Adidas have been investing heavily in 3-D printing. Now, New Balance is aiming to beat both Nike and Adidas to the finish line.
Today, the company announces a new running shoe model that incorporates a 3-D printed midsole. The shoe will be available in April in Boston as a limited edition collection, with the release timed to coincide with the Boston Marathon. New Balance will sell "a couple hundred" of them in 2016 and intends to expand their retail operations to more global metropolitan locations thereafter.
The design is an update to New Balance’s Fresh Foam Zante model. But instead of gluing a traditional foam midsole into the shoe, the new shoe will incorporate a 3-D printed midsole. The upper of the shoe will still be composed of traditional cloth. Though New Balance has not released exact price figures, it says the market price will be higher than New Balance’s regular range of running shoes and hopes they will appeal to serious amateur runners interested in innovative footwear.
New Balance expects to offer consumers the opportunity to customize their 3-D printed midsoles as part of a trial program, in select retail locations, in 2017.
Shoe brands are competing to achieve a lighter, more quickly made shoe, and they are using 3-D printing to do it. In October, Adidas announced it had created a 3-D printed midsole prototype as part of its new Futurecraft 3D project, loosely committing to bringing a limited quantity to market by next summer. At the GeekWire Summit in Seattle, Nike COO Eric Sprunk suggested that Nike is accelerating its own 3-D printing efforts.
3-D printed midsoles have generally been too heavy and rigid to benefit athletes, but New Balance says it has found a material that achieves an acceptable mix of flexibility and weight for performance wear. This year, New Balance partnered with South Carolina-based 3D Systems to incorporate one of the company's’ new elastomer materials into its printing process.
The resulting elastomer-made midsole is less massive than New Balance’s previous printed midsole prototypes, and light enough that New Balance feels ready to introduce it to the marketplace. The printed midsole’s current design is about 40 grams (1.4 ounces) heavier than a full-length, foam-only midsole, but the New Balance team plans to make improvements between now and April.
"In design, we have been erring on the side of durability and still have opportunity to optimize for weight," says Katherine Petrecca, New Balance’s general manager for studio innovation.
New Balance’s 3-D printed midsoles reflect improvements in the company’s design method, leveraging the convenience of 3-D printing. Foam insoles are typically created with injection molding, which wastes unused material and requires continually purchasing custom molds at a few thousand dollars apiece, each time.
New Balance uses a specific manufacturing technique called selective laser sintering to 3-D print the new midsoles, building up layers of material instead of cutting away scraps, without the use of a mold. New Balance’s SLS printing method uses lasers to fuse the proprietary elastomer powder into a cohesive material for the midsole.
"With injection molding, there are significant restrictions in how you can design a part or how you can engineer variable properties into a single part. And that’s what’s really attractive about SLS printing," says Petrecca. "It really opens up design capabilities in being able to design a part down to the millimeter and opens the door to performance customization."
New Balance has been experimenting with 3-D printing since 2013, when it started to produce 3-D printed, cushioned spike plates for competitive track athletes. A spike plate, which is different than a midsole, accommodates spikes or cleats that dig into the racing surface. New Balance has since fitted professional soccer and baseball players with these 3-D printed spike plates. They are currently only available for a select group of professional athletes, called Team New Balance.
New Balance customizes the spike plates to the performance characteristics of each athlete, which may, in turn, provide a competitive advantage. In June 2014, professional track athlete Kim Conley won the 10,000-meter event at the USATF Outdoor National Championships while wearing New Balance’s 3-D printed spike plates.
But consumer customization is far off; it will require its own design overhaul before it’s ready for market. The technology New Balance currently uses to measure an athlete’s exact movements involves complicated sensor configurations and lengthy movement observation sessions with expert bio-mechanists.
New Balance anticipates its consumer customization process will de-emphasize extensive biomechanical measurements and involve only some of the individual’s measured physical data, like his or her weight, with reported running preferences.
One startup claims to achieve total insole customization already. SOLS, a Manhattan-based startup who counts among its investors New York Knicks basketball player Carmelo Anthony, has a proprietary customization method that only requires feeding a few photographs of the wearer’s foot into an algorithm. The algorithm estimates the 3-D shape of the foot, and the resulting 3-D printed insoles can be used in any type of shoe, not only in athletic footwear.
The athletic shoe industry recognizes that innovation outside of 3-D printing will translate into better shoes, too. This fall, Adidas launched its Sport Infinity program, which aims to create completely recyclable shoes as part of the company’s greater effort to make manufacturing more sustainable. Earlier this month, Adidas released a new Futurecraft creation, a shoe whose upper is composed of a single piece of leather, made with digital milling. (It released 45 pairs to the public for one day on November 7, in New York, London, and Tokyo, but there are no publicly known plans to release the model to the wider public.) New Balance, like Adidas, is also exploring digital milling in its in-house prototypes and other manufacturing processes to enable more design improvements to both midsoles and uppers.
It isn’t clear when any of these brands will produce 3-D printed footwear on the same levels of traditionally mass-produced product lines. They will have to wait until 3-D printing becomes less cost-prohibitive at higher production numbers. In general, once production levels of a printed product top 1,000 pieces, 3-D printing’s costs start to outweigh its gains in time savings. At high quantity, producers default to mass production methods, like injection molding.
That the new, 3-D printed New Balance shoes will be available to the mass consumer represents a milestone for 3-D printing overall, says Petrecca. Whereas 3-D printed products are typically made from hard materials, New Balance believes it has found a unique method to print soft materials by combining materials innovation with plastics engineering.
"We’ve made some significant advancements in the performance of [3-D] printing, to create parts that are light and soft and flexible, and mimic and replicate what we are able to do with foam," Petrecca says. "And to create that in a package that’s also durable enough for running use."