Modern Life

The art of shoemaking goes high tech

Custom 3D-printed footwear is changing how shoes are made and the very definition of a good fit.

By Garage Staff — September 20, 2018

From the woven grass sandals of ancient Egypt to the extravagant silk heels of 18th-century Europe, most shoes throughout history were custom designed for the individual. There were no shoe sizes, no racks of shoes to scrutinize and try on and certainly no mass-produced footwear geared toward sports and play. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that shoes were made in bulk. But that’s starting to change as custom made- and fitted-footwear  is made possible (and affordable) by 3D scanning and printing technology.

“One hundred years from now we might look back and see that the moment of industrialization where we had to fit into preexisting sizes and styles was a blip in the history of shoemaking,” says Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the BATA Shoe Museum in Toronto. “Today we’re moving back to bespoke footwear.”

At the forefront is FitStation Powered by HP, a state-of-the-art technology that scans your foot, analyzes your gait and creates a digital, 3D model of your foot. That model is sent to a 3D printer, which creates a unique insole that can be worn with any shoe. FitStation is powered by HP 3D scanning technology and HP’s Multi Jet Fusion printing technology, a highly-accurate, streamlined and rapid method of 3D printing, along with other digital manufacturing techniques. This 3D scanning and printing technology allows for the creation of custom insoles in an efficient manner, ushering in a new era of shoe shopping.

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The sole of FitStation

FitStation technology is available at 27 shoe stores across the U.S. to date, such as West Seattle Runner, Running Central and A Snail’s Pace, where you’ll be able to use it for custom insoles and receive specific shoe recommendations. The measuring and scanning process is quick and straightforward; it only takes a few minutes to determine your foot’s unique profile. You simply step your bare foot onto the scanner and pressure plate, which then takes up to 500 measurements per second. That scan is used to create a precise 3D rendering of your foot.

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Through the magic of the internet and advanced biomechanics, those measurements are transformed into an insole design and sent directly to a 3D printer at a manufacturing facility outfitted with HP Multi Jet Fusion printers, which creates a custom insole designed for your foot. FitStation by HP is currently manufacturing 3D-printed insoles, and thanks to a partnership with Brooks, running shoes with custom mid-soles are on the horizon. In fact, this year FitStation provided the NFL with recommendations on the cleats that best fit the foot shape and gait of each player. 

“We are stitching HP’s capabilities in 3D scanning and 3D printing to bring this 'blended reality' vision to life and are working with leading footwear partners to digitally transform this industry,” says Louis Kim, global head of immersive computing at HP.

The Flowbuilt manufacturing plant, in Ferndale, Wash., makes custom recovery slides that help your feet recuperate between runs. The slides are made using a multi-section-injection or MSI, a technique that allows for different sections of a mid-sole to have different density and hardness. 

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The difference digital manufacturing makes

This new process for creating custom footwear is completely revolutionizing the industry, both for the manufacturer and the wearer. Custom insoles make your shoes more comfortable, can improve athletic performance and can even provide personalized pain relief for some. In addition to being more precise, they’re also better for the environment than an old-fashioned insole. Molds and tooling can also be 3D printed, cutting down on waste, cost and time-to-market.

Historically, all custom insoles have been created with a process called “subtractive manufacturing,” meaning they  are carved out of a larger piece of material, with all the extra going to waste.

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“If you’re making an insole, you’re cutting a piece of rubber and there’s all kinds of extras,” says Lori Yarrow, chief customer officer at Go 4-D, a custom orthotic company working with HP’s Fitstation. “Those end up in a landfill.” The HP Multi Jet Fusion printers create insoles using 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. That process means there’s no excess material to be thrown away. “There’s enormous environmental impact,” Yarrow says.

In a time when clothing and shoe retailers are manufacturing new items every week to  chase ever-evolving trends, bespoke items break the mold. Custom insoles and shoes are an incredible antidote to the modern “fast fashion” epidemic, in which clothing and shoes are made cheaply and in abundance — and just as quickly discarded to make way for next season’s hottest item. This results in an overload of fashion inventory, and much of the unsold stock ends up in landfills or is destroyed.

“There’s multiple interests driving 3D-printed footwear — everything from environmental concerns to wanting to be at the cutting edge,” Semmelhack says. “All of these things are coming together to make 3D-printed footwear of extreme interest at the moment.


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The footwear of the future

Shoes are more meaningful today than ever before. “We are burdening our footwear with conveying increasing amounts of information about us,” Semmelhack says. “In the past, people expressed their status, personality and style with different types of accessories — consider the importance of hats and gloves pre-1970. Today, our most powerful accessory is the shoe.”

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If our shoes are our most essential accessory, it makes sense that each pair should be unique to its owner, as they were for thousands of years. “The customer has lost touch with the shoemaker,” Semmelhack says. “They no longer have input into the design. They have to see if they like what is on offer and whether or not they fit into a size.” With the rise of digitally produced shoes and insoles, you’ll no longer be at the mercy of a shoe manufacturers. You’ll get exactly what you want — a shoe that fits your foot and your style.

In the future, Yarrow says, “There will be no size 10. There will just be size Lori. It’s perfect.”


Learn more about HP's newest innovation in 3D printing: Metal Jet.