Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Exponential Potential | 3D Printing

3D printing has turned a crucial corner and its true potential is just beginning to be realised. Since the technology was first paraded to the resounding 'oohs' and 'ahhs' of the design world, material science has advanced sufficiently to threaten the more traditional technique of injection molding as being a thing of the past. The upsetting of this balance can be pinpointed to the advent of Multi Material 3D Printing Technology (MM3DPT). Where once you could only print with a specific polymer type (as limited as using only a black ink cartridge in a traditional printer) MM3DPT allows for the combination of different polymers through photopolymerization to create different materials with different properties. In the context of shoe design this allows for the shoe to have a hard sole and flexible upper thus not compromising the comfort and performance of the shoe for the wearer.  

Technicalities aside, I want to discuss the impact that MM3DPT will have on the sneaker community. It is safe to say that sneaker design has been all embracing of new technologies and more often than not has placed itself at the forefront of these innovations. Nike’s Innovation Kitchen should be enough of a prompt to remind us of the relentless pace that new technologies, materials and designs are made commercially available for the sneaker consumer. What has become evident with MM3DPT is that this quick fire method of designing is breaking away from the traditional approach to shoe design. This is by no means a bad thing for the conventional approach begins with hand sketches on paper, which are reviewed and revised several times over until a product concept is approved. The upper materials are then sourced and the concept sent to a shoe factory, taking several weeks for the sample show to arrive. The sample is then reviewed and original sketches once again revised and modified prototypes ordered until the final product design is reached. This is simply not time efficient. The new way would see the initial paper sketch designs moved to 3D CAD software where designs can be manipulated with minimal effort until product managers are happy with the on-screen concept. And then with the simple push of a button a prototype shoe can be quickly printed in the design office, shrinking labour hours significantly. Deconstructing the design process in such a methodical way may seem somewhat futile, but in relation to the sneaker consumer, a quicker design process equates to greater numbers of models, colourways and new designs made available to purchase.  

Having read Brett Golliff’s article on the future implications of Nike’s FlyKnit technology, the development and marketing landscape for sneakers is radically going to change within the next few years. Nike’s material development team has unearthed some extraordinary discoveries in recent memory. Vac Tech, Hyperfuse, Flywire and FlyKnit have made a precedent for the new direction that sneaker design is heading. Construction methods and materials used in the 90’s and mid 2000’s are becoming increasingly obsolete due to the rise in synthetic materials, purpose designed for specific models and releases. But this is not to say that materials like leather and the craftsmanship that is required in making a leather shoe is going to be forgotten. Retro releases, bespoke programes, PE’s and commemorative limited editions are always going to be part of Nike’s makeup and heritage. But rather than producing them as they do today, within the nest 10 years these shoes will become even more of a bespoke and collectible. In the same way that there is a price to be paid for hand made commodities (especially shoes) there will be increased numbers of Nike boutiques, possibly modeled on the likes of 21 Mercer St in New York, acting as skilled cobblers ready to make on demand the historic sneakers of yester year. 

So we have sneaker consumption and production heading in two ways. Option one, will see home printing allowing for the latest up to date performance and innovation based designs to be downloaded off the internet and tailored to your exact foot measurements. This will be possible with the a 3D-scanner that will be complimentary when purchasing a 3D printer. Also sites like Pirate Bay will enable the downloading of "physibles" where people can share and download schematics for 3D printable objects. Option two is for you to go to your nearest Nike boutique and order your own tailored Jordan Retros where they will craft them for you out of the best quality materials but at a price that reflects the quality of the shoe. That is something that Jordan footwear is not abiding by today. If this is the immediate future, then it is a bright bright future indeed.