Editors' Pick: Originally published Jan. 29.
3D printing has long been seen as a tool for making small tools for personal use, but some large retailers and smaller-scale businesses have started to delve into using 3D printing for mass-market distribution of customized products.
For their first products, they've started on the ground level -- literally.
Customized shoe insoles and orthotics are among the newest products to be created using 3D printing machines, and companies such as Nike (NKE) - Get Report and New Balance have partnered with technology companies to create 3D-printed performance athletic shoes, some of which could be released later this year.
Other smaller companies, such as Vancouver-based Wiivv and New York City-based SOLS, have tapped into the orthotics market, working with doctors to provide insoles customized to patients' feet.
So far, New Balance and Adidas have announced they're working on making customized midsoles for upcoming products, and Nike said it's also tinkering with 3D printing.
Having the ability to customize insoles gives these footwear companies a way into a multi-billion-dollar market. According to research released in July 2015 by market research firm IndustryARC, the foot orthotics industry was estimated at $2.5 billion in 2014 and is expected to hit $3.5 billion by 2020, with some of that growth being attributed to the recent rise in 3D printing applications.
But 3D printing may open more doors for these companies than just the ability to customize insoles.
The most exciting part of the enterprise is the implications for how companies will build and distribute footwear, said SOLS CEO Kegan Schouwenburg.
SOLS and Wiivv, for example, use a type of 3D printing called selective laser sintering (SLS) that melts the design of the insole into a layer of powdered plastic. The insole is then excavated out of the powder. Both companies are taking pre-orders for consumer products that aim to reduce or eliminate foot pain when running, hiking or walking -- or even when working jobs that require a lot of standing.
Schouwenburg said the process is significantly more affordable than the traditional method of customizing insoles, which is by hand using a cast of one person's foot as a guide. The 3D printer lets retailers get away from injection molding, a common way for companies to mass-produce insoles but one that allows for little customization.
She said 3D printing has the potential to create products when the customer orders them, rather than making them in many sizes and with piles of waste fabric left over.
"It'll be amazing. We'll see impact on the supply chain," Schouwenburg said of the longterm potential of 3D printing in manufacturing. "We won't have overstock. We won't have waste. Products will be made on demand."
Nike COO Eric Sprunk discussed the possibility of on-demand shoes at a GeekWire Summit talk in October, mostly discussing how a version of 3D printing is being used to make the brand's Flyknit Lunar shoes.
"This is a file we send on the computer...We send the file, we send it to the knit machine, the operator of the knit machine can operate many knit machines, he hits it into the knit machine and out comes a shoe," Sprunk said.
"There's almost zero waste. The amount of waste from this shoe can fit literally in a thimble. It's just leftover thread," Sprunk added. "The amount of waste of an Air Force One or the shoe I have on my foot, which is made by stitching pieces together, cutting them with dyes, the waste that hits the factory floor -- this eliminates all of that."
New Balance recently announced it's working on 3D-printed midsoles that can be customized to the consumer's foot.
Some companies are talking about the possibility of having insoles, or even entire shoes, printed from stores or through at-home machines. That day hasn't come yet -- even companies selling custom insoles manufacture the items in their own facilities -- but it may be on the horizon.
"Do I envision a future where we might still own the file from an IP perspective ... and you can either manufacture that in your home or we will do it for you at our store?" Sprunk said in a talk at GeekWire Summit. "Oh yeah, that's not that far away."
In a talk at CES 2016 earlier this month, New Balance CEO Robert DeMartini said his company is working on a limited release of 3D-printed running shoes in April in Boston -- albeit, non-customized ones -- and believes customized shoes could one day be printed at home.
"But it's really just the beginning," DeMartini said. "As personalization takes the next step, and as the 3D ecosystem gains steam, we're envisioning being able to print these in store or in consumers' homes."
However, large companies such as New Balance, Nike and Adidas do face a scaling problem.
3D technology currently works best on a small scale, and there's a significant difference between making millions of the same shoe verses making millions of shoes with a customized component, SOLS's Schouwenburg said.
"I think it'll be a while before it exists at that level," she said. "We're not at a point yet where the margins make sense."
In order for traditional companies to be able to mass-produce customized shoes, 3D printing technology will have to grow and evolve.
"It's not going to be a single company that changes the industry overnight, but really it's the entire market changing," she said. "Ultimately, (large manufacturers are) long way from realizing the dream of making footwear affordable, accessible and customized."
New Balance announced in November it is collaborating with 3D Systems, which manufactures and sells 3D printers, to create a running shoe with a customizable, 3D printed midsole, according to a company release.
New Balance also announced it will be leveraging its new partnership with Intel (INTC) - Get Report -- the footwear company is working with Intel to create a smartwatch, which is expected to be released in time for the holiday season -- to incorporate 3D printing into its shoes.
SOLS uses 3D printing to make customized insoles for running or medical needs.
Intel's RealSense camera can record depth of field, which makes it ideal for collecting data for 3D printed materials. At CES 2016 earlier this year, New Balance announced it will be using that technology to design its 3D-printed, customized shoes.
"We've been working with 3D printing for a long time, and recently we started experimenting with Intel's RealSense to see if we could created 3D images of the foot that create a truly personalized running shoe," DeMartini said in a CES 2016 presentation, "and we found the possibilities for design were incredible."
New Balance also announced it has created a new division, Digital Sport, that will focus on digital product enhancements and wearables.
Schouwenburg, whose firm has so far raised about $20 million in funding since its start in 2014, said investors are interested in 3D printing as a hot topic, but they actually sign up because of the manufacturing capabilities the technology brings.
She said the hype around 3D printing has started to die down when realistic applications for the technology were slow to emerge, but the interest in insoles is growing. Last year, her company sold 10,000 pairs of insoles, which are customized by taking photos of the customer's feet. One pair of SOLS' consumer insoles costs $199.
"People have moved away from the machine aspect of (3D printing)," she said. "In order for these machines to really create a market around it, we need applications. We've only scratched the surface of what that's going to look like."
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.