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3-D Technology Makes Greater Inroads in Footwear

The technology takeover is making its way into apparel and footwear, albeit a bit later than other industries, but companies specializing in 3-D are beginning to see the benefits of making for the footwear industry.

At a Sourcing at Magic seminar Tuesday, Matt Priest, president of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA) said 3-D may be just what helps repatriate manufacturing.

“We are on the cusp of a kind of revolution that may drive production back to the United States,” Priest said, touching on the cost, material and labor savings that 3-D technology could mean for footwear.

And more than that, 3-D could start to save substantial time to market in an era where consumers don’t wait for what they want.

“For an industry that has such long lead times, there’s an opportunity to use 3-D printing to shorten that lead time,” Priest said. “We’re in an era where customers want it now, they want it customized—different than what their neighbor bought, and they want it frequently.”

As Natacha Alpert, senior innovation manager for Caleres (formerly Brown Shoe Company) said, “We’re about to go into a new paradigm shift and a new era for the future of footwear.”

Though 3-D has only been a buzzword in the fashion world for the last few years, the technology isn’t new, just new to apparel and footwear. And according to Alpert, there are five key trends driving this influx that are set to shape the footwear sector over the next five years.

The first is customization. Customization has and will continue to move beyond picking laces and upper colors—it will soon mean consumers will be able to get customized fits for their shoes.

Nanotechnology, the second of the trends, will bring to market new materials that may not even exist yet to help improve offerings in footwear. For example, as Alpert explained, MIT is already working on 4-D printing, creating a self-assembling shoe that can be printed folded and then assemble itself, conforming to the wearer’s foot.

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Biomimicry will continue to look at nature for its functions and apply relevant findings to new technologies. Machines will also be increasingly able to learn, letting consumers take 3-D scans of their foot and getting back a slew of data.

The final of the key trends, according to Alpert, is local production and the idea that a new industrial revolution could reposition the U.S. for footwear production.

Using 3-D can mean more sustainable production as there are no molds or yield waste, and it can eliminate rounds of proto samples and shorten the development time as brands will be able to—straight from a line plan—make adjustments and apply exact materials and textures on a 3-D last, review them and start sampling.

Brands are in the process of testing 3-D elements for footwear, some using it for heels, others for insoles. Right now metal, coconut wood, brass and plastic are among the materials that can be 3-D printed.

At present, however, the current materials available for 3-D printing aren’t quite consumer ready.

“I don’t want to put a plastic shoe out in the market even though it looks cool,” Alpert said. “It’s going to be another six months to a year before we can print a shoe a consumer can wear.”

Despite the fact that footwear and apparel are maybe 20 years behind the automotive industry in terms of technology and 3-D printing, Alpert said the technology will be so ubiquitous for fashion in the next five to 10 years that the fact that it was 3-D printed won’t be at all astounding.

Consumers will likely even be armed with their own custom shoe lasts they can tote physically or digitally when looking to buy footwear, and it may be that brands could just scan a shoe and get the specs.

For now, companies are working on 3-D printed leather, wood and things that may not even have names yet that will come to be ideal for footwear manufacturing. But for now, making 3-D printing for footwear commercial has to be what comes next for the industry.

“Commercialization is key,” Alpert said. “We have to bring this to life. It has to be sellable to the consumer. The consumer has to understand it.”