“Ultimately, we hope to do this in all of our products. So today, it’s a statement. Tomorrow, it’s for everyone.” – Eric Liedtke, Head of Global Brands for Adidas 
One of the footwear companies leading the adoption of 3D printing technology in the sporting industry, Adidas has recently released its first shoe with a 3D printed midsole. Adidas has emerged as the front runner in the race towards printing shoes en masse, pledging to ramp up production of their Futurecraft 4D to 100,000 pairs by the end of 2018 .
Current Uses and Competition
3D printing is widely used in the footwear industry for prototyping. Until recently, creating a single prototype was a very manual process that, with shipping to and from the factories, could take four to six weeks per iteration. 3D printing has cut this process down to one or two days and reduced the number of people needed from a dozen, to just a couple . A designer now works with a CAD designer to create a 3D file of their design, prints it overnight, and has a physical product in hand to review within days. The process it is quicker, more effective, and more environmentally friendly, and has therefore been adopted across the industry.
Driven by the desire to better address the needs of a large variety of customers, and the aspiration to keep innovating in the footwear space, several of the industry leaders have now experimented with using 3D printing to create customized shoes. Nike, New Balance and Under Armor started by creating customized spike plates and cleats . More recently, Nike also released the first printed upper, the Nike Flyprint . So far, however, 3D printed shoes have only been released in very limited quantities.
The Futurecraft 4D set Adidas apart from its competitors as it uses a new, faster, and more efficient 3D printing technology called Continuous Liquid Interface Production . Instead of the top down, printing in layers method that is typically used, this new approach uses a very precisely directed light to harden liquid resin and create a solid but flexible lattice design well suited to absorb shock . The design of the midsole also lends itself particularly well to modifications, and therefore customization; The weave of the shoe can be tightened to form a denser and more supportive structure in whatever part of the shoe an athlete needs it most .
Adidas still has significant challenges to overcome before switching over to 3D printing across their product line. For one, while 3D printing requires less manual labor, it still necessitates the work of very qualified CAD designers to create a 3D model every time a new piece is to be printed . Second, the materials that can be printed are still limited compared to the range of textiles, foams and plastics currently being used in traditional manufacturing, therefore this technology limits the range of products that Adidas can make. Thirdly, each machine can only work on one piece at a time and takes several hours at minimum, so this process is not nearly as time nor space efficient as a production line. Furthermore, these printers are very expensive, so the products sell for quite a bit more than the typical running shoes, limiting their market potential. Despite these limitations, Adidas is determined to be the first mover in this category. They have already ramped up their production by purchasing enough printers to make a million 3D printed shoes .
Though this technology is not yet economically scalable, I would recommend that Adidas keep pushing forward. As an early mover in this space, their investment in these new techniques will pay off as they patent their discoveries and ensure several years of head start on their competitors. Though I am not convinced that there is really a need for customization for most people, it is certainly beneficial to injury-prone runners, and can be incrementally beneficial to top performing athletes, so there will be people willing to pay the premium for their products. At the very least, today’s consumer is very interested in the technology that goes into their product, and this initiative has been a great marketing tool for Adidas. Investment in this space will help to further the technology and make it more accessible, and eventually Adidas will reach their goal of using 3D printing across their product line.
As Adidas considers how much to invest in 3D printing technology, they should consider the following: How big is the need to have customized shoes? Should they reserve this technology for only their most premium products? Would they get more bang for their buck if they focus on evolving more traditional materials?
1 Annie Pilon, “Small Business Trends: Could 3D Printed Shoes Hint at Future Opportunities for Small Businesses?” Newstex Entrepreneurship Blogs, Chatham: Newstex. Apr 10, 2017.
2 Balinski, Brent. “Nike and Adidas speed up prototyping with 3D printing,” Manufacturers’ Monthly (2013).
3 Jopson, Barney “New stamping ground for Nike and Adidas as 3D shoes kick off,” FT.com; London (2013).
4 Caliendo, Heather “3D-Printed Sneakers Gaining Traction,” Plastics Technology (2018).
5 “What is Nike Flyprint?” Nike News, https://news.nike.com/news/nike-flyprint-3d-printed-textile, accessed Nov 10, 2018.
6 Fitz Tepper “Adidas’ latest 3D-printed shoe puts mass production within sight” Techcrunch.com (2016) https://techcrunch.com/2017/04/07/adidas-latest-3d-printed-shoe-puts-mass-production-within-sight/, accessed Nov 10, 2018.
7 Holweg, Matthias “The Limits of 3D Printing,” Harvard Business Review, (2015).
8 Chang, Andria “How Adidas Plans To Bring 3D Printing To The Mass,” Forbes.com, (2018).
Photo Source: https://www.carbon3d.com/stories/carbon-lattice-innovation-the-adidas-story/