Fast Company - - Innovation By Design - —MARK WIL­SON

The wo­ven soles from look clear­like in­tri­cate seafoam bas­kets­green tooth­paste. The sen­sa­tion un­der­foot is bouncy yet firm, and strangely, you can lit­er­ally feel the air pass­ing un­der your feet. There are only a few hun­dred pairs of Adidas’s rad­i­cal new 3-D–printed run­ning shoes, known as Fu­ture­craft 4D, in ex­is­tence, but al­ready they rep­re­sent an early vic­tory lap around com­peti­tors’ at­tempts, be­cause they are ac­tu­ally com­ing to mar­ket en masse: By the end of the year, Adidas will have pro­duced 5,000 pairs, with 100,000 more planned by the end of 2018. ¶ In­dus­try leader Nike has spent the past two years fo­cused on build­ing bet­ter foam mid­soles that max­i­mize ath­letic per­for­mance, cul­mi­nat­ing in its Nike Zoom Va­por­fly 4% and Nike Zoom Fly shoes, which went on sale in June. Nike, Un­der Ar­mour, and even New Bal­ance have all re­vealed 3-D con­cepts in the past year, but most are ei­ther pro­to­types or rare lim­ited edi­tions. (New Bal­ance has com­mit­ted to large-scale 3-D print­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing start­ing in 2018, but won’t re­veal any num­bers.) How Adidas, the sec­ond-big­gest footwear com­pany in the world, pulled ahead in the 3-D race is a story of fore­sight, per­se­ver­ance, and strate­gic col­lab­o­ra­tion. While the com­pany has been rais­ing its global pro­file by smartly lever­ag­ing creative part­ner­ships with cul­tural icons such as Phar­rell and Kanye West, it has also been up­ping its tech­ni­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing game at its Ger­man head­quar­ters, where de­sign­ers and en­gi­neers have been ex­per­i­ment­ing with 3-D print­ing since 2010. “If you can elim­i­nate the block of foam un­der your foot, you have a lot of op­por­tu­nity to tune and man­age at­ten­u­ate forces, a lot of dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­en­tial ben­e­fits,” says Paul Gau­dio, Adidas’s global creative di­rec­tor.

For the first four years, the com­pany’s at­tempts ended only in fail­ure. Three-di­men­sional print­ing ma­te­ri­als—the ac­tual poly­mers used by the ma­chine—are rigid, and there­fore brit­tle un­der pres­sure. Not the ideal choice for an ath­letic shoe. What’s more, 3-D print­ing is no­to­ri­ously slow. Tra­di­tional EVA foam mid­soles, pro­duced through in­jec­tion mold­ing, can be made in 20 min­utes. Print­ing the same de­sign nanome­ter by nanome­ter would take hours.

But Adidas de­sign­ers made sig­nif­i­cant strides when it came to shape, go­ing deep into the physics of lat­tice struc­tures and ex­plor­ing how their

var­i­ous ge­ome­tries—too com­pli­cated to draw by hand or even model in­side tra­di­tional com­puter draft­ing pro­grams—could be wo­ven by al­go­rithm into a high-per­for­mance con­struc­tion. “I re­mem­ber the first time I saw one,” Gau­dio says of one of the early, stiff 3-D pro­to­types ren­dered in lat­tice. “Some­one pulled it out of a bag, and I was like, That’s re­ally cool. I un­der­stood im­me­di­ately the pos­si­bil­ity of it.”

Even­tu­ally, they cre­ated a more func­tional ma­te­rial as well, us­ing a poly­mer pow­der re­sem­bling the one the com­pany uses for its own Boost line. Adidas 3-D–man­u­fac­tured a few hun­dred pairs of shoes with these new soles, un­der the name 3D Run­ner, but had trou­ble with scale. Ex­ist­ing 3-D–print­ing tech­nolo­gies could build only six mid­soles at a time, and that process took 8 to 10 hours. Then the mid­soles had to sit for another eight hours cool­ing in the ma­chine be­fore be­ing cracked out of a pow­der block—much like salt roasted fish—and hand-dusted of mi­cropar­ti­cles. The 3D Run­ner de­buted in De­cem­ber 2016 for $333 to ea­ger col­lec­tors, but the shoes cost sig­nif­i­cantly more for Adidas to pro­duce and were sold at a loss.

At a St. Louis trade show in 2016, Adidas’s Fu­ture en­gi­neer­ing di­rec­tor Marco Kor­mann met Phil Des­i­mone, the head of business de­vel­op­ment for a 3-D–print­ing startup called Car­bon, which was al­ready in talks with sev­eral of Adidas’s com­peti­tors. Car­bon had dis­cov­ered a way to print with liq­uid in­stead of pow­der. Adidas de­sign­ers brought hockey-puck -shaped sam­ples of the printed sub­stance back to their lab in Ger­many and smashed it with ma­chines to test its fea­si­bil­ity un­der­foot. “We were im­me­di­ately im­pressed,” says Adidas’s Fu­ture VP Gerd Manz. “You see a lot of data claims by com­pa­nies, and they fall down when you test them.”

This ma­te­rial lacked the “en­ergy re­turn” of a tra­di­tional ath­letic shoe, they dis­cov­ered, and it would per­form poorly in ex­treme tem­per­a­tures, but Car­bon’s print­ing method­ol­ogy had the po­ten­tial to make a beau­ti­ful shoe out of smooth, translu­cent webs. And it was un­de­ni­ably fast. In­stead of stack­ing tiny bits of ma­te­rial layer by layer, Car­bon’s sys­tem grows prod­ucts from a pool of liq­uid resin, much like the milky birth of a Westworld an­droid.

Adidas and Car­bon made an agree­ment in the sec­ond half of 2016: Car­bon could take on other, non­com­pet­i­tive con­tracts, such as in the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try, but Adidas would be its ex­clu­sive footwear part­ner. With­out merg­ing, the two en­ti­ties could still learn from each other, shar­ing in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty and a de­vel­op­ment team, over a mul­ti­year term, as they codis­cov­ered break­throughs in de­sign, process, and ma­te­ri­als. Be­cause of this ar­range­ment, says Manz, “you don’t need to be afraid in­for­ma­tion is leak­ing. You can col­lab­o­rate as one com­pany.”

The two com­pa­nies have made pow­er­ful ad­vances over the past year, cre­at­ing a printer with 10 times the ca­pac­ity of Car­bon’s older model and a new elas­tomer with high-end per­for­mance specs. When this ma­te­rial is fed into a printer, it can be­come a mid­sole in just 30 min­utes, plus some bake time in the oven, with no ex­tra dust­ing or clean­ing re­quired. “When it comes to our in­dus­try, this hasn’t been done. It’s a par­a­digm shift,” Gau­dio says.

The com­pa­nies are work­ing to bring this tech­nol­ogy to scale as fast as pos­si­ble. Adidas is help­ing Car­bon, a startup with more than $200 mil­lion in fund­ing but just over 200 peo­ple, build up its in­dus­trial supply chain— print­ing is cur­rently be­ing done at Car­bon’s head­quar­ters, in Red­wood City, Cal­i­for­nia. By the end of this year, Adidas will be­gin in­stalling the ma­chin­ery in its Speed fac­tory in Ger­many. Even­tu­ally, Adidas plans to dis­trib­ute these print­ers across the globe, in­clud­ing in stores, us­ing Fu­ture craft 4D tech­nol­ogy to achieve the holy grail of shoe de­sign: footwear cus­tom­ized to the in­tri­ca­cies of some­one’s in­di­vid­ual foot shape and gait. “The most ap­peal­ing bit is the un­lim­ited pos­si­bil­i­ties,” Gau­dio says.


Pho­to­graph by El­iz­a­beth Ren­strom

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