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How to Prepare For a 3-D Printed Footwear Industry

The Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA) anticipates 3-D printing will be the industry standard in 15 to 20 years. The process is being touted as a gateway to faster and more innovative product, but it will also bring with it a host of unanswered legal questions.

The FDRA discussed the future of 3-D printing and the inherent intellectual property issues in a webinar with partners of the Husch Blackwell litigation firm and Natacha Alpert, the lead of innovation at Caleres.

A primary concern with 3-D printing in the footwear industry is the possibility for patent infringement if a company has a patent on a particular shoe, explained Brandan Mueller, partner at Husch Blackwell.

The ease with which people will be able to share digital blueprints will work against the 3-D printing process in that it makes it easier to steal intellectual property. Lawsuits could be brought onto the fabricator of the infringing product and the distributor of the product; the U.S. Code defines a violator as “whoever without authority makes, uses, offers to sell, or sells any patented invention.”

Alpert quoted a prescient 2014 tweet from Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founder, “In ten years, Nike could be a pure software company. We’ll just print our sneakers.”

This future doesn’t seem so far away, given that in 2014 alone, over 140,000 desktop printers were sold, said Sam Digirolamo, partner at Husch Blackwell. In the same year, the international market for 3-D printing was $4.1 billion, including prototyping and non-commercial uses, with $2 billion in products. The market is expected to grow to $7 billion in the next year and to $25 billion in the next five years.

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Alpert anticipates an upcoming rise in the popularity of 3-D printing as the technology enters pop culture. She noted that in 2016 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York will open a show called “Fashion in the Age of Technology,” sponsored by Apple and featuring 3-D printers making dress and shoes in the galleries. She predicts that the show will in turn affect the press and celebrities, causing 3-D printing to take off in the second and third quarter of 2016.

The rise of 3-D printing will also affect retail, where salespeople are still using the Brannock Device, invented in 1927, for measuring feet. Alpert explained that when 3-D printing becomes the norm, 3-D scanners will also be widespread, and salespeople will be able to scan feet with an iPad and fit the foot exactly.

The 3-D printing movement will also allow for customized shoe lasts and allow people to create their own footwear. Alpert said, “You can imagine a whole bespoke movement where you have your own customized shoe lasts and will be able to create your own footwear from that.” She envisions a possible future for footwear retailing where everything can be produced locally, with no need for inventory, and the ability to go from design to concept within a few days.