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Why Digitization in Footwear Production Starts With 3D Technology

The increasing reliance on digitization within footwear design and production, especially as design teams work from home, leaves very little room for inefficiency within the product development process. No longer can companies send their factory partners a sketch of a shoe and hope that they get it right on the first try, or waste time and product sending samples back and forth. If ever there was a time for the industry to onboard 3D technology, that time is now.

Nicoline van Enter, founder of The Footwearists, an innovation and education platform designed for and by footwear professionals, noted during a session at the FDRA Shoe Sourcing Summit that the introduction of 3D technologies presents many situations where more employees, from developers to engineers, can be involved in the footwear mockup process, and gives factories and brands a better chance to communicate effectively on their needs.

“If you have to design it in full 3D and you see it in front of you, then you’ll start realizing what does and does not work,” van Enter said. “We’ve had very few manufacturing mistakes, because if you ‘hold it in your hands’ in virtual reality then you can really see each individual part and explain perfectly well how the shoe needs to be assembled.”

That’s usually not what you find from a 2D drawing, van Enter argued, in that there are usually some directions included, but it always ends up falling on the factory to interpret those instructions correctly.

The brand-factory relationship also traditionally involves creating and sending tech packs, which can be a drag on the creative process between designers and sourcing teams. Shane Griffith, director of product at Foundry Digital Design, noted in another session that the company’s solution strives to prevent designers from having to input product specifics into the tech packs, instead letting them focus on design.

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“The worst thing you want to do is pay a creative person what they would consider to be mundane, but other people would enjoy that accounting type of work,” Griffith said. “Our Colorway solution was inspired on taking that process and systemizing it so that when you’re in the design process, you can apply the color red to leather and suede and come in with metadata from the PLM system. That information exists, we just hold onto that for the designer so that they don’t have to think about it.”

Foundry, which Griffith describes as an end-to-end program that can execute creative 3D modeling and texturing, look development and lighting and design variation management, among other process, works with major brands such as Nike, Adidas, New Balance and Deckers across different parts of the footwear design and development process.

“We found that with some brands, they typically went through a process where graphic design did the 2D illustration, to the color designers to do the color-up, to the material designers to do the material spec to the developers,” Griffith said. “Now, a lot of that can almost happen in parallel, especially to the extent where material is often a more leading factor to how that color looks on that surface, so they can start the material-up process before they even do the color-up in some cases.”

3D printing tech is ready, but logistics have a way to go

If 3D technology is what product development process needs to evolve, then 3D printing will continue to play more of a role in the future as well. But in order to perfect it, the logistics within the system must improve, particularly within foot scanning and data capture, according to van Enter. Designers shouldn’t be designing shoes one by one, and instead must generate automated parts based on various parameters measured by scanning and collecting shopper data such as sole density, height and even gait.

“What I’m worried about, which is also stalling some of the developments, is larger brands doing exclusive collaborations with big printing companies,” van Enter said. “I have a lot of people that take my training and want to have things printed and they cannot. ‘No, we’re already in bed with this brand so we cannot print any more footwear.’”

One such brand, highlighted in Griffith’s session, is New Balance, which partnered with Formlab to launch the TripleCell 3D printing platform and increase its advanced shoe production at its Massachusetts facility.

“They have a room full of 3D printers that they’re now mass producing the tooling with in all different sizes and all different widths,” said Griffith. “The sheer math problem of doing that is pretty interesting because it costs time to produce a 3D-printed object, and there’s the wearability part of the equation.”

Exclusive agreements between the major brands and printing technologies leave smaller brands with very little access to better raw materials that make the technologies worthwhile, van Enter said.

“I do wonder whether the brands that are demanding exclusivity and pay for the development of the materials will make enough 3D-printed shoes to justify the exclusivity,” said van Enter. “This has not been implemented in a huge way. Adidas would put the Futurecraft 3D printed shoe next to the Boost and shoppers will say ‘Oh, the Boost is much lighter. Let me try that one.’ Then you still see the printed shoe as more of a gadget.”

Van Enter largely attributes the slower adoption of 3D printing among Western brands on a mass scale to the fact that many look at it as a process to replace molding, which is “not the right way to look at it” because doing so only takes costs into account and not customization.