This month the German footwear brand adidas announced a partnership with 3D Printer start-up Carbon for their Futurecraft 4D program, a new initiative to leverage 3D Printing to make running shoe midsoles. Last year, when first announcing their new Multi Jet Fusion 3D Printing process, HP also announced a partnership with a footwear company (Nike). The past few years have also seen various announcements from New Balance, Under Armour and a host of others. Prior to this announcement from adidas however, most companies touted their use of 3D Printing as a technology to accelerate prototyping or as an “experimental” technology, essentially just beginning to uncover what 3D Printing might be able to do for them. This announcement from adidas takes the industry one step further in that it indicates that it will begin to use the unique Carbon 3D Printing technology (and material) to produce the running soles for its new line by firstly making 5,000 pair this year and then 100,000 pair by next year.
This hits at the heart of the next hurdle for the 3D Printing industry, moving away from just prototyping and cracking more into gargantuan manufacturing industry. 3D printing excels in the production of complex parts, in one-off production, in on-demand and in “mass customization” (think hearing aids and invisible orthodontia braces both of which have been made using 3D Printing for a long time). 3D Printing has not been able to compete against tried-and-true manufacturing techniques like injection-moulding (or “molding” as I spell it) for producing say millions of smartphone cases or office chairs (and maybe never will) but for lower volume production it is now starting to make inroads into mass production.
Carbon’s CLIP 3D Printing technology is a twist on one of the original 3D Printing technologies (there are at least 7 core technologies) and is relatively new to the market. The general technology uses a laser or light source to harden a liquid polymer (plastic) resin material layer-by-layer to build a part from the ground-up (or top down sometimes). The twist on this age old technology (technically called Vat Photopolymerization) is that the Carbon printer allows for this process to be sped up considerably and allows for new materials to be used. While adidas and Carbon noted the longer term intention of offering specialized soles for each purchaser (harkening to the “mass customization” abilities of 3D Printing), what is actually more newsworthy is the mass production aspect of the partnership. As Carbon and others speed up the 3D printing process, this is BIG news in the 3D Printing industry which is definitely looking for a spark to help it move into its next phase of evolution, mass-production.
In the sub-segment of metal 3D Printing (which uses totally different techniques), great progress has already been made moving that side of the industry into production (highlighted and validated most recently by GE’s continued progress in the space) but on the Plastics side of the industry, most printers are still used principally for prototyping (or mass customization and the like as noted above). If adidas and Carbon can fulfill on their promise of producing 100,000 running shoe soles next year economically, then indeed the market will we well on its way from evolving from the $5B industry it is today into a $17B industry in the next 5 years.