Footwear
Dec 28, 2023
by Karl Smith
3D-Printed Footwear Is Leading a De-Industrial Revolution
by Karl Smith
Dec 28, 2023

There’s an alternate universe in which we end the year not talking about 3D printing‘s ascent to the footwear mainstream, but – with a faint sense of schadenfreude – about how this particular techno-gimmick went the way of the Bored Ape.

Thankfully, however, we don’t live in that reality. No, we live in the one where 3D printing has – if not necessarily taken over the footwear and fashion industries, per se – most definitely asserted itself as a major player moving forward.

So, how did we get here? How did the niche preoccupation of a few engineers and designers install itself as a serious contender for the title of the future of footwear? And, more importantly, what does any of that really mean for the industry or for the planet?

Well, first things first: while you can’t put 3D-printing’s somewhat-meteoric rise down to just one company or just one brand, if you were going to try, you’d probably want to start with Zellerfeld.

Rightly celebrated by TIME magazine with a coveted spot on the publication’s “Best Inventions of 2023” list, Zellerfeld’s 3D-printed footwear platform has opened the door to big-name brands, cult labels, and lesser-known designers looking to experiment with the process. Just this year, the innovation outfit has partnered with the likes of Moncler, Rains, PLEASURES, and AMBUSH, after soft-launching back in October ’21 with a sneaker created by designer Heron Preston.

“With 3D-printing, there is a respect for the environment integrated into the process and it has a shorter production timeline. There is also the ability to make dreams come true.” – Heron Preston

In taking infrastructure out of the equation – Zellerfeld has 200 3D printers of its own, removing the burden of machinery from creatives – and in taking submissions from designers for its “Open Beta” program, the company has not only set itself up as the go-to manufacturer for 3D-printed footwear, but repositioned the entire process as a democratic mode of creativity, rather than an exclusionary one.

“Democratization of the footwear industry through 3D printing will break down barriers to entry, allowing designers, creatives and everybody with an idea to participate and thrive in the market without prohibitive up-front costs,” says Zellerfeld Co-Founder and CEO Cornelius Schmitt, clearly optimistic about the potential of technology to change things for the better.

“This inclusive approach fosters diversity, encourages creativity, and empowers a wide range of talents to contribute to the evolution of footwear,” Schmitt suggests, pointing to changes that will, he believes, “make the industry more accessible and dynamic than ever before.”

It’s an ambitious goal, but, looking at what Zellerfeld alone has achieved in such a short space of time, it’s also one that you can see beginning to play out already.

 
For Heron Preston – BEEN TRILL alum, founder of his own eponymous label, Calvin Klein collaborator, and head of the progressive LED Studio – his own Zellerfeld collaboration (the HERON01) seemed to open doors he didn’t even realize were locked.

“When I discovered the technology, I had no idea it was even possible at the time,” he tells FUTUREVVORLD, “I don’t think it was about me necessarily wanting to make a 3D-printed shoe, it was more about chasing cutting edge tech in fashion.”

Following the same pattern that Preston has adopted across his work to-date, “It was,” he explains, “more about having an interest and drive to push the boundaries of creative culture.” Perhaps most importantly, though, according to Preston, it was the removal of barriers to entry that unlocked that desire: “Zellerfeld’s technology,” he says, “seemed like the perfect tool to help me take my design practice to the next level.”

And Preston isn’t alone in this, either. PLEASURES Co-Founder Alex James has a similar outlook on what the process can offer from a creative perspective: “3D printing, from sampling to production, will soon become standard protocol,” James suggests. “Traditional shoemaking will always be there, but 3D is a beautiful addition to the out-of-the-box design concepts. Brands like Zellerfeld have paved the way for this idea.”

All of which still begs the question, however, just because a brand or creative could now feasibly produce a 3D-printed shoe – just because that avenue was suddenly open – why would, or why should, they want to?

 

Firstly, 3D printing is a more-or-less wasteless mode of production – nothing is cut, nothing is discarded – which, of course, makes for an attractive prospect financially speaking. Telling a brand that there’s no discard to account for in the costing process is worth its weight in, if not gold, at least whatever material their shoes are currently being made from.

As much as it isn’t particularly glamorous – at least from an artistic perspective, though a CFO might well disagree – it’s hard to overstate the allure that added margin of financial freedom can have.

More than just a fiduciary incentive, though, it also makes for an equally attractive prospect from a sustainability angle: no waste means nothing sent to landfill and no energy unnecessarily expended on the process in ways that don’t directly impact the product itself.

“When it comes to 3D printing, our focus is to address the global footwear waste problem by enabling a more circular prototyping process and, eventually, on-demand production, reducing the excessive stock of over 20 billion shoes manufactured each year,” says Yael Joyce Vantu, Chief of Product at materials science company Balena.

Alluding to the issue of materials and the question of how much good it really does to improve on the process without changing the inputs, Vantu – whose startup outfit recently revealed its 3D-focused BioCir Flex material – continues: “Early on, we recognized that employing 3D-printing technology with biobased compostable materials for shoe production could diminish our reliance on fossil resources, thereby decreasing carbon emissions.”

And, on the topic of materials, others in the industry are pushing for further progress too.

 
Earl Stewart – Creative Director for 3D-printed footwear at HP – suggests that, if we want to see any kind of lasting change, or any kind of serious uptake from the mainstream, this might be the key area in need of further focus.

“I see what processes are coming through the pipeline and potential unlocks with new digital strategies which are really exciting to use,” Stewart says, “Yet material has been one of the toughest unlocks for 3D printing adoption in the mass footwear market, especially when it comes to performance footwear where there is a higher bar to pass footwear standards. There are some really exciting developments in Material for 3D Printing, the difficulty of material development also keeps it on a different level.”

Similarly, Zellerfeld’s Cornelius Schmitt is not unaware of this issue. “We recognize the inseparable connection between processes and materials in 3D-printing,” he says of the company’s philosophy. “Our focus on advanced materials, including flexible polymers and sustainable options, ensures that each shoe not only meets high-quality standards but also aligns with our commitment to environmental responsibility.”

And, while not itself a material science company in the truest sense, Zellerfeld has – in a sense – made materials a silent partner in its 3D-printing USP, setting up a way of working that allows its collaborators not only a sense of creative freedom but also the ability to claim a modicum of sustainability in their efforts, too. It’s hard to imagine a brand like PANGAIA, for example – which released its Absolute Sneaker in collaboration with Zellerfeld earlier this year – deciding to play around with 3D printing if there weren’t also that progressive element.

“The democratization of the footwear industry through 3D-printing will break down barriers to entry, allowing designers, creatives and everybody with an idea to participate and thrive.” – Cornelius Schmitt, Co-Founder and CEO of Zellerfeld

But materials, of course, are only one part of that – one piece of a much larger puzzle that could well show us what a better footwear industry looks like.

“The on-demand nature of 3D-printing minimizes waste, aligning with a more sustainable and environmentally conscious approach to production,” explains Schmitt, not only pointing to 3D printing’s zero-discard process, but also to its customized nature – a method, in Zellerfeld’s case, based on foot scans and measurements, designed to make each shoe as close to a perfect fit as possible.

It’s a process that not only decreases the environmental burden of returns – something of a sleeper agent in the fashion and footwear industry’s ongoing battle with emissions – but also ensures product longevity through specification. If a shoe is truly “yours” – if it fits only your foot, wears in ways that follow the precise contours of your physiology – then, chances are, it’s something you’re going to hold on to. In this sense, Schmitt offers, “3D printing will truly ensure a complete paradigm shift in footwear or footwear as we know it today.”

 
A Design Consultant on 3D Print at HP, Nik Lee finds himself agreeing with what much of Schmitt has to say – although his outlook on the technology’s sustainability credentials comes in the form of a more tempered optimism.

“[3D printing] is great from an aesthetic point of view, as we are able to produce previously impossible designs. However,” Lee suggests, pointing to the fact that it’s not only the Zellerfelds and Astral Labs of the world using 3D, “many of these fast fashion shoes have a short lifespan and use plastic materials that are harmful to the environment. With this in mind, it’s important to take into account what this technology is replacing and what holistic advantage it actually brings.”

And, interestingly, Lee sees most potential in an area not exactly famous for its focus on Earth-friendlier materials or processes: the realm of performance footwear.

On this front, “Scanning, combined with parametric design, enables perfectly fitted shoes on a mass scale. This gives an advantage in any sport or functional footwear application,” Lee says. “Printing several materials together allows a wide range of different properties in a single print, even to a nano scale. This, together with unique lattice structures, can improve dampening, energy transfer as well as reducing the overall weight.”

Here, Lee and his HP colleague Earl Stewart are aligned. “Material,” Stewart suggests, “has been one of the toughest unlocks for 3D printing adoption in the mass footwear market, especially when it comes to performance footwear where there is a higher bar to pass footwear standards. There are some really exciting developments in Material for 3D Printing, the difficulty of material development also keeps it on a different level.”

Michael Petch, Editor-in-Chief of 3D Printing Industry magazine, also notes progress here – but is clear about room and need for further change: “Customization is a burgeoning area,” Petch says, pointing to the Acronym x Nike Blazer as a recent example. “In terms of customization for performance or fit,,” however, Petch suggests there are currently fewer options unless you’re an elite athlete. “VivoBarefoot’s VivoBiome might change that. In addition to bespoke footwear, VivoBarefoot also taps into 3D printing’s potential to reduce waste by only making to order.”

And – with over a billion running shoes sold every year – Lee, Petch and Stewart are right to highlight the progressive possibility of fusing high-end performance tech with a lower-impact manufacturing process, thinking about how those shoes might now each be produced without waste is an inviting prospect for an industry that also produces 30 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions for every single pair of running shoes.

Perhaps most impressive, then, is the idea that those shoes might be produced without anything like a traditional factory, either.

 
While 3D printing right now isn’t operating on anything like the scale of the traditional footwear manufacturing industry, it is operating without the use of a traditional industrial infrastructure – a distinction that, resonating with Schmitt’s earlier thoughts on democratizing the process, also has potential for localizing manufacture.

In this way, what 3D printing promises is all-round decentralization – not just of creativity, but also of production.

“I would love to see manufacturers take accountability [for recycling],” says Lee, “If manufacturers were accountable then we would see a reduction of material types and more attention to how products can be dismantled.”

With recent studies having shown that localized, 3D-printed footwear manufacture cuts not only 40% of emissions generally (compared to traditional, industrial manufacture) – with the more obvious, massive reductions across process and materials – but also that it reduces transport emissions by up to 30% compared to overseas manufacture, there is a clear case of virtual factories that collaborate directly with brands and designers on the full scope of the process.

And, in that sense, the success of Zellerfeld’s model – of made-to-order, direct-to-consumer, and return-to-source footwear – offers some key insight into how this might all play out on a wider scale over the next few years – an important step toward a de-industrial revolution: a version of the future in which manufacturers, brands and designers all take ownership of (and accountability for) a collaborative end-to-end process that’s open to all.

It might sound like a pipe dream, but – hey – we’re in the reality where 3D-printed footwear is in the pages of TIME Magazine and there isn’t a Bored Ape in sight.