Adidas’s Futurecraft 4D is an honoree in the 2017 Innovation By Design Awards, Fast Company‘s annual celebration of the best ideas in design. See the rest of the winners, finalists, and honorable mentions here.
The soles look like intricate baskets woven from clear seafoam green toothpaste. The sensation underfoot is bouncy yet firm, and strangely, you can literally feel the air passing under your feet. There are only a few hundred pairs of Adidas’s radical new 3D–printed running shoes, known as Futurecraft 4D, in existence, but already they represent an early victory lap around competitors’ attempts, because they are actually coming to market en masse: By the end of the year, Adidas will have produced 5,000 pairs, with 100,000 more planned by the end of 2018.
Industry leader Nike has spent the past two years focused on building better foam midsoles that maximize athletic performance, culminating in its Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% and Nike Zoom Fly shoes, which went on sale in June. Nike, Under Armour, and even New Balance have all revealed 3D concepts in the past year, but most are either prototypes or rare limited editions. (New Balance has committed to large-scale 3D printing and manufacturing starting in 2018, but won’t reveal any numbers.) How Adidas, the second-biggest footwear company in the world, pulled ahead in the 3D race is a story of foresight, perseverance, and strategic collaboration. While the company has been raising its global profile by smartly leveraging creative partnerships with cultural icons such as Pharrell and Kanye West, it has also been upping its technical manufacturing game at its German headquarters, where designers and engineers have been experimenting with 3D printing since 2010. “If you can eliminate the block of foam under your foot, you have a lot of opportunity to tune and manage attenuate forces, a lot of different experiential benefits,” says Paul Gaudio, Adidas’s global creative director.
For the first four years, the company’s attempts ended only in failure. Three-dimensional printing materials—the actual polymers used by the machine—are rigid, and therefore brittle under pressure. Not the ideal choice for an athletic shoe. What’s more, 3D printing is notoriously slow. Traditional EVA foam midsoles, produced through injection molding, can be made in 20 minutes. Printing the same design nanometer by nanometer would take hours.
But Adidas designers made significant strides when it came to shape, going deep into the physics of lattice structures and exploring how their various geometries—too complicated to draw by hand or even model inside traditional computer drafting programs—could be woven by algorithm into a high-performance construction. “I remember the first time I saw one,” Gaudio says of one of the early, stiff 3D prototypes rendered in lattice. “Someone pulled it out of a bag, and I was like, That’s really cool. I understood immediately the possibility of it.”
Eventually, they created a more functional material as well, using a polymer powder resembling the one the company uses for its own Boost line. Adidas 3D–manufactured a few hundred pairs of shoes with these new soles, under the name 3D Runner, but had trouble with scale. Existing 3D–printing technologies could build only six midsoles at a time, and that process took 8 to 10 hours. Then the midsoles had to sit for another eight hours cooling in the machine before being cracked out of a powder block—much like salt-roasted fish—and hand-dusted of microparticles. The 3D Runner debuted in December 2016 for $333 to eager collectors, but the shoes cost significantly more for Adidas to produce and were sold at a loss.
At a St. Louis trade show in 2016, Adidas’s Future engineering director Marco Kormann met Phil DeSimone, the head of business development for a 3D–printing startup called Carbon, which was already in talks with several of Adidas’s competitors. Carbon had discovered a way to print with liquid instead of powder. Adidas designers brought hockey-puck-shaped samples of the printed substance back to their lab in Germany and smashed it with machines to test its feasibility underfoot. “We were immediately impressed,” says Adidas’s Future VP Gerd Manz. “You see a lot of data claims by companies, and they fall down when you test them.”
This material lacked the “energy return” of a traditional athletic shoe, they discovered, and it would perform poorly in extreme temperatures, but Carbon’s printing methodology had the potential to make a beautiful shoe out of smooth, translucent webs. And it was undeniably fast. Instead of stacking tiny bits of material layer by layer, Carbon’s system grows products from a pool of liquid resin, much like the milky birth of a Westworld android.
Adidas and Carbon made an agreement in the second half of 2016: Carbon could take on other, noncompetitive contracts, such as in the automotive industry, but Adidas would be its exclusive footwear partner. Without merging, the two entities could still learn from each other, sharing intellectual property and a development team, over a multiyear term, as they codiscovered breakthroughs in design, process, and materials. Because of this arrangement, says Manz, “you don’t need to be afraid information is leaking. You can collaborate as one company.”
The two companies have made powerful advances over the past year, creating a printer with 10 times the capacity of Carbon’s older model and a new elastomer with high-end performance specs. When this material is fed into a printer, it can become a midsole in just 30 minutes, plus some bake time in the oven, with no extra dusting or cleaning required. “When it comes to our industry, this hasn’t been done. It’s a paradigm shift,” Gaudio says.
The companies are working to bring this technology to scale as fast as possible. Adidas is helping Carbon, a startup with more than $200 million in funding but just over 200 people, build up its industrial supply chain—printing is currently being done at Carbon’s headquarters, in Redwood City, California. By the end of this year, Adidas will begin installing the machinery in its Speedfactory in Germany. Eventually, Adidas plans to distribute these printers across the globe, using Futurecraft 4D technology to achieve the holy grail of shoe design: footwear customized to the intricacies of someone’s individual foot shape and gait. “The most appealing bit is the unlimited possibilities,” Gaudio says.