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) 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."