Liberating design

Retailers and designers begin to embrace 3D printing

Sean Dudley
21 November 2016

3 min read

Early adopters praise 3D printing for enabling greater design freedom, cost savings and faster production times. These advantages are now starting to move beyond the shop floor, and into the shop.

If you want to take up jogging to improve your health and fitness, you’ll probably head to a sports shop and buy a pair of running shoes. But if those shoes are hard on your feet, give you blisters or just aren’t comfortable, you’re unlikely to be running for very long – and you may never buy that brand of running shoes again.

To ensure that its buyers are happy users, adidas is piloting 3D printing technology to create tailor-made trainer midsoles that support and cushion the precise contours and pressure points of each individual’s feet. Currently a prototype, the company’s Futurecraft 3D concept was created in cooperation with Materialise, an additive manufacturing software and services specialist based in Leuven, Belgium.

The idea is that one day you will be able to walk into an adidas store, hop onto a treadmill, run a bit and be able to order a 3D-printed custom-built running shoe with midsoles that conform to a scan of your foot.

“From the very start with 3D printing, the promise of the technology has been enabling freedom of design – to make objects aesthetically better and to allow objects to be optimized for the function they perform instead of the manufacturing process, as evidenced in our partnership with adidas,” said Alireza Parandian, corporate business development manager for wearables at Materialise. “Freedom of design can also be taken to its highest degree – i.e., individualization.”


Unlike traditional manufacturing, which involves cutting away portions of solid materials to create a part, most additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, uses computers and 3D modeling software to build up products layer by layer from various materials, such as plastic, nylon, epoxy and resins or even sheets of paper, into finished products.

The technology is being harnessed to create products for a range of consumer goods industries, including wearables, housewares, eyeglass frames, jewelry, luggage and toys, as well as orthopedics and medicine – and the list is growing rapidly as the use of 3D printing expands into homes and offices. Additive manufacturing experts envision the day when, for example, a consumer with a defective vacuum cleaner part can simply log onto the company’s website, download the CAD file and 3D print a replacement part.

The rapidly expanding field keeps companies like Arcam, based in Mölndal, Sweden, which specializes in electronic beam melting (EBM) machines used mainly in the aerospace and orthopedic implant industries, in continuous evolution.“We started off as a supplier of 3D printing machines to create prototypes, but have become more of a supplier of machines for the shop floor,” said Magnus René, Arcam’s president and CEO.

 “Our customers are using our machines for real production applications, which is opening the eyes of other companies and making them understand they can use this method for their own manufacturing. More and more people are realizing additive manufacturing can be a viable production method.”


Early adopters are finding that additive manufacturing has the potential to significantly improve product design. It can also cut costs, as customers and manufacturers are able to quickly create what they need, when they need it.

“Additive manufacturing allows you to manufacture efficiently,” René said. “Companies can manufacture with lower tooling costs and lower starting costs, and actually take out cost. With the ongoing development that is taking place, additive manufacturing technologies will only become more and more efficient.”

Additive manufacturing is driven by three core competencies, Parandian said: quality, reliability and traceability. These are particularly important in highly regulated industries, such as medicine or aeronautics. With the flexibility of additive manufacturing, companies must ensure that they are meeting these regulations right from the start.

“In the medical sector, we have a separate product line for our surgical guides, which have to meet certain standards of the medical industry, and we have a similar model for the aeronautics industry,” Parandian said. “In wearables, we have a certified product line for eyewear. Wearables is a highly demanding industry on the cosmetic side, so you need that level of quality, control and consistency.”


Andy Middleton, EMEA president at Stratasys, a manufacturer of 3D printers and production systems headquartered in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, believes that the key to the widespread adoption of 3D printing by consumer goods companies, which need to produce products by the millions, boils down to whether it proves to be more effective than traditional methods.

“For the production of low-volume quantities or on-demand parts that improve workflows, 3D printing’s evolution from the prototyping lab to the factory floor has significant benefits,” Middleton said. “I believe that the positive impact of 3D printing, and the way in which an increasing number of companies are adopting this efficiency-driving, cost-reducing technology, will be instrumental to supporting the manufacturing industry going forward.”

In both the retail and manufacturing spaces, Parandian believes that transferring more creative power to the designer – and to the consumer, as adidas is doing – is the real future of additive manufacturing.

“Being able to empower people and allow them to bring personal content into their end products will ultimately create more value,” he said. “This is what additive manufacturing offers.”

Take a look inside adidas FutureLab

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