The day won’t be far away where you will finally own a pair of “unique” running shoes. That’s because shoe manufacturers are putting focus far beyond the glue and stitching involved in sneaker construction to create customizable footwear that molds to every individual runner.

Using “selective laser sintering,” a 3D-printing process that facilitates in the making of the components of a shoe one layer at a time, rather than the traditional model of cutting or injecting foam. Finally companies can engineer the structure of a shoe- starting with the outsole and moving into the midsole- to create unique models from outside to the inside. This also enables them to zero in on a custom fit more quickly because they can tweak the original prototype in a matter of hours rather than the months-long process. Nike used this method to speed up production of prototypes in order to go through several dozens of copies of track spikes for elite athletes such as Allyson Felix, as she was preparing for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Nike used 3-D printing to make copies of the spike for the Allyson Felix prototype shoe (Image courtesy: Nike)

New Balance had had tried the same technique to fine-tune track spikes for its athletes. But spikes are not a necessity when it comes to most runners. In 2016, the company released the Zante Generate , the first commercially available running shoe with a full-length (but not customized) 3D-printed midsole, though it made and sold only 44 pairs.

Amidst all this, how can Adidas be far behind? Late last year, they released a limited edition 3D Runner with a 3D-printed midsole and heel counter. While both of these early models came in standard sizes and were heavier and stiffer than their EVA counterparts, they offered proof of concept of a new way of thinking about technology and design.

So does the near future hold a dream come true for runners where they will be able to slip their feet into custom-built shoes, made to fit the curves of their feet and their unique biomechanical needs? For now, the major players are tight-lipped on specifics, but all indicators suggest we’ll see more options from more brands this year- customized footwear for individual runners, and not just elites.

In the second half of 2017, Adidas is bringing this level of customization to the U.S. with its Speedfactory, a production facility in the Atlanta area. Its goal is to deliver cutting-edge manufacturing and produce more shoes with “advanced complexity in color, materials, and sizes”. Ben Herath, the vice president of global design is quoted as saying“The vision of Speedfactory is about making customized and personalized footwear for all people. We’re bringing shoe manufacturing closer to the people and speeding up the manufacturing time.”

The 74,000-square-foot facility will produce 3D-printed running shoes this year. Unlike previously available custom shoes where you could only choose color, this factory will build shoes tailored to the exact shape and size of an individual runner’s feet. Initially, this unique fit process will take place at select Adidas company stores, which will have the specialized equipment to measure the details of the foot shape.

HP also teamed up with insole manufacturer Superfeet to roll out 3D-printed insoles (Image Courtesy: Superfeet)

For regular runners, Nike teamed with technology giant Hewlett-Packard in 2016 for the “immediate challenge” of creating a cushioning system from 3D-printed materials, says Tony Bignell, vice president of footwear innovation. While the results have proven too stiff and heavy so far, “we believe that the next frontier is to deliver a 3D material for cushioning, at scale, to athletes around the world.” There isno sure-shot time-table where Nike has confirmed of launching a customized running shoe.

HP also teamed up with insole manufacturer Superfeet to roll out 3D-printed insoles in the first quarter of 2017 across a handful of specialty running stores. The technology allows customers to get a 3D scan of their feet, and uses that data to not only suggest current running shoes that will fit best but also to build custom-fit Superfeet insoles and recovery slides at an additional price. Via a kiosk that scans an individual foot and uses pressure-plate data to mine metrics for the recommendation and customization, the early process will take a couple of weeks to produce the insole, something Superfeet hopes to reduce down to a few hours as the technology evolves.

So what’s the brightside of all this innovation? The era of customization is upon us and within the next couple of years everybody’s feet will be treated like an elite’s.

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