Inside 3D Printing Shoes

If you’ve ever thought about 3D printing shoes, you’ll enjoy watching the video below about a Portland-based company that creates shoes on demand using an HP MJF 5200 3D printer. Granted, this isn’t a printer you likely have in your basement. The one-ton printer costs up to a half-million dollars but watching it do its thing is pretty interesting.

The printer doesn’t create the entire shoe, but just a spongy foam-like TPU footbed and heel. They run the printer overnight and get about a dozen pairs out at once. There’s quite a bit of clean-up to get the piece ready. Of course, there’s also the assembly of the rest of the shoe to take into account.

One of the advantages of this approach is apparently the lack of waste. We didn’t know, but apparently conventional shoes wind up in landfills. These shoes are made to recycle and the company offers a discount to those sending in old pairs.

Of course, another advantage is the speed of producing new designs. However, we wonder about the economics of using a printer that costs at least $300,000 to produce a dozen pairs of shoes a night. The shoes aren’t cheap — we hear they run from $175 to $375 a pair, but they aren’t that expensive, either. Our bad business math shows that even if you could make 100% profit and have 0 ruined shoes, it would take decades to pay back on one of these printers. Considering real costs, profits, and other considerations pushes that number into hundreds of years. Still, maybe they lease the printer or time share it, we aren’t sure.

Fancy a go? Try the Digital Shoe Design Kit. These shoes are pretty stylish, but with 3D printing, you can build anything you can imagine, even if it would make you look like a nerd.

20 thoughts on “Inside 3D Printing Shoes

    1. Yeah, I reframed that in the middle and didn’t tidy up right. If you assume operating expenses and pretty good margins on the average price it is a long time. If you look at what it actually costs to advertise, hire people, ship, rent space, electricity, insurance, service contract on printer, internet, the manual machines, trade shoes, blah blah blah, it could easily push up further. When I saw how bleak it was I was thinking well, what’s the best case and you are right it isn’t decades, but that’s a very optimistic picture to earn $100 on shoes that retail for average of around $220 (assuming even distribution, which may not be true, but…). Granted, they sell direct so maybe, but your after tax earnings are probably a lot less than that.

  1. How do they go from just using a 3D printer to “a zero waste on demand footwear”?
    Have they for example recycled a single pair of their shoes into clean powder re-usable for the next pair of shoes?
    … and of course without degradation of the plastic itself…

    I do wish them well, but I also thing a bit more is needed then a flashy movie with a fancy background tune.

    1. Honestly, at the scale of product they are fabricating, it doesn’t matter if a plastic clump deviates by a full millimeter. They already do post processing so even those clumps are going to be rectified.

      Seriously, shoes are far from precision products.

      1. Yes, but if they can’t turn the dirty shoes back into clean powder then it might not even bind to make a new pair.

        What’s super neat is that they could be making custom shoes for each person’s feet, instead of me buying a size up to get the width.

        1. That was my first thought when I saw this: making mainstream shoes is a mug’s business but being able to scan your foot and also integrate a custom orthopedic insert into a cool-looking shoe suddenly becomes very attractive. This is already comparable in price to custom orthotic inserts, and also to have it designed for your foot width/length and fashionable? Then you can ask more and still have customers feel like they’re getting a good deal. Like the Zenni of shoes.

  2. What would be great is if you could get replacement footbeds printed for hiking boots.
    The urethane sole assemblies disintegrate after a few years, and the otherwise good leather boot is trash. Only the most expensive boots supply replacements. It’s heart breaking, and bloody expensive.

    1. Seemed to me that footwear in general went to shit in 2005. Before that, careful shopping would get you (for a reasonable price) shoes that would last several years, after that, everything in the affordable range, and a lot of the not so affordable began to seem to aim at a 3 month lifetime. Uppers that rip and crack easily, soles with only a thin wearing/gripping bottom that wears through quickly. Internal sole structure that rips up mashes and collapses.

      Among the design/construction sins were things like plastic coating leather, such that it could not take polish to remain supple and cracked up rapidly. Also centuries of shoemaking knowledge were thrown out the window in that uppers had their seams and tension points in the wrong places such that they would pull off the sole in odd places. Also the amount of give, cushioning and insulation in soles has declined a lot, such that many shoes what you think of as the heel, isn’t really, it’s a 5mm sliver at the bottom of the cup.

      What in particular pissed me off through that period is the manufacturers going “We can’t afford to manufacture in Europe/North America any more” when they had lines of decent shoes between $30 and $60, then 3 years into the manufacturing in Asia their shoe prices had tripled and their quality had gone completely in the toilet. From 2 year shoes at $50 to 2 month shoes at $150. I’d have paid double the price for the previous version if I had to, as long as construction quality remained.

      For most of the 10s I was looking for pre 2005ish shoes at yard sales and thrifts, with some wear left in them, now I’m just buying at CostCo and THEY ARE GOING BACK if the wear and method of failure do not seem satisfactory to me.

      There are still small shoe repair shops that can resole shoes if they approach traditional construction methods, but there’s so much trash in the market that they can’t do anything with, that I worry they won’t be there for us much longer.

    1. Not PC? Who cares. WTF is wrong with you?

      They arch her back and make her butt look good! Yeah heels! Yeah evolution! Viva la difference!

      Also: Boobies!
      Also also: Nipples! Natures thermometers.

      Not just shoes/excess waste. Whole fashion industry sucks BWDB.

  3. This all looks cool and I wish them all the luck in the world, but, I’ll stick with my ASICS Gel-Kayanos. They’re the most comfortable and durable things I’ve had on my feet. They retail for $160, but, when you’re in the middle of a race, or just walking around, you don’t want your shoes giving you issues.

  4. Yeah, heels are totally sexist. Why is it OK, and even sexy for a girl to wear heels, but a guy with heels, platforms, or anything else is mocked as short and “compensating”. Maybe he likes the way it makes him walk, or helps him feel confident.

    Obviously, we shouldn’t be getting rid of options in pursuit of equality, but instead, discouraging negative perceptions. There’s a market for the clunky platform boots that goths pay hundreds for, and there are men that feel like heels make them sexy, as well as the folks who like lift so that they match better in height with their date.

    To dismiss a thing because it has sexist connotations is to say that we can’t fix sexism, and that instead, people should abandon anything anyone finds problematic to bigots. Utter twaddle.

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