Your Shoes Will Be Printed Shortly

By Christopher Mims Features Dow Jones Newswires

This may be the year you get 3-D-printed shoes.

Continue Reading Below

But the radical innovation of 3-D printing techniques means we are finally going to see some previously impossible designs creep into our consumer goods. In the long term, it also means new products that previously would have been impractical to produce, and a geographical shift of some manufacturing closer to customers.

I have two very different examples of this milestone, one plastic, the other steel. There's a running shoe from Adidas AG, with a 3-D-printed latticed sole that looks almost organic, like the exposed roots of a plant.

Then there's a steel hinge, indistinguishable from any other metal part except for incredibly fine striations in its surface, as if it had been deposited like sandstone rather than forged. In a feat impossible with conventional manufacturing, all three moving pieces of the hinge were crafted together.

3-D printing is more than two decades old, but to date the process has been limited to making novelties, prototypes, bits of machines for factories, or expensive specialized parts, like fittings for prosthetic limbs or fuel nozzles in jet engines.

After years of searching for a 3-D printing tech that is up to the challenge of sneakers, Adidas came upon a startup called Carbon Inc., which has raised $222 million to date. Instead of the plodding process of depositing plastic one layer at a time from a nozzle, Carbon's "digital light synthesis" printers transform a liquid plastic into a solid using UV light and oxygen. This yields products comparable in quality to molded plastics at a competitive speed and cost, at least when making tens of thousands of a given object.

Continue Reading Below

Why Now?

Because traditional manufacturing requires molds, casts and machining, it has high upfront costs. It's great if you want to make a million of something, but not so great if you want fewer. What the 3-D printing business has finally figured out is how to speed up the process dramatically while also using cheaper and stronger materials.

HP Inc. and Desktop Metal Inc. are leveraging actual inkjet printer technology. HP's Multi Jet Fusion printers, which start at $130,000, literally draw with heat-absorbing ink on plastic powder, rapidly building layers one tenth of a millimeter at a time.

Desktop Metal's manufacturing-grade system, which starts at $360,000, uses inkjets to shoot a binding agent meant to hold tiny bits of metal together so they can be fused in what is basically a big oven. These technologies are rapidly distancing themselves from the type of 3-D printing now popular with do-it-yourselfers, which more closely resembles a hot glue gun.

Both HP and Desktop Metal are breaking with tradition in 3-D printing by throwing out the "razor and blades" model, where 3-D printing companies made money by selling specialized printing materials. HP is partnering with BASF SE and more than 50 other companies, which will formulate their own powdered plastics for HP's 3-D printers. Desktop Metal's process uses powdered metals, a commonly available material typically used in a process known as metal injection molding.

You can expect a huge variety of the bits and bobs inside everyday objects to be 3-D printed in the next year, including plastic parts for automobiles, says Matthias Weisskopf, senior vice president of technologies at Oechsler AG. The company is building factories for Adidas and produces parts for German automobile makers. Another big application will be replacement metal parts for construction equipment, says Don Jones, director of global aftermarket parts strategy at Caterpillar Inc.

For both Caterpillar and Oechsler, moving to 3-D printing is also about bringing manufacturing closer to end consumers. Caterpillar's problem is that servicing equipment means maintaining a costly, spread-out network of parts warehouses. It hopes to supplant these with print-on-demand parts. Adidas is building "Speedfactories" in Germany and the U.S. -- in Atlanta -- where it can produce goods on demand.

Adidas hasn't said how much its 3-D printed shoes will cost, but it has said they will be priced as a "premium" product. It expects to have shipped about 5,000 pairs by the end of 2017 and more than 100,000 by the end of 2018.

Baby Steps

There are myriad barriers to 3-D printing becoming a mainstay of manufacturing, however. While the new technologies offer a markedly lower per-part cost than previous 3-D printing techniques, the cost doesn't remain competitive when quantities exceed 20,000 or so, says John Dulchinos, vice president of global automation at Jabil Circuit Inc. A U.S. manufacturer of consumer electronics from Disney's theme-park wristbands to internet-connected gym shorts, Jabil is currently testing both HP and Desktop Metal printers for making production parts.

With traditional manufacturing, the high up-front costs of building molds and tooling can translate to ever-lower costs per part. With 3-D printing, costs are more or less the same to make one object or 10,000.

The other big issue? These parts have yet to be certified for the kind of extreme durability required in, for example, automobiles. Mr. Dulchinos says there are many tests on these materials yet to be completed. "This is a 'show me' industry," he says.

That's why Ford, which has been experimenting with 3-D printing almost since its invention, has yet to sell vehicles with printed parts, says Ellen Lee, technical leader of additive manufacturing research at the auto maker.

In the meantime, I did some unscientific tests of my own, ones that, in my experience, no 3-D printed object would survive. I took the Adidas running shoes on a long, punishing run through city streets, sure that at any moment they'd fall to pieces. They didn't. Then I took a hammer to the steel hinge. I'm no John Henry, but it survived.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 14, 2017 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)