Sportswear producer Reebok unveiled its new ‘Liquid Factory’ technology last week which makes use of additive manufacturing to create shoes.
Liquid Factory uses an approach called 3D Drawing in order to create shoes in a similar way to more established 3D printing techniques.
A robotic arm extrudes liquid polymer onto a flat surface drawing a number of curving lines and building up a 3D structure.
This 3D structure is then made into the sole of the shoe, as well as being incorporated into ‘wings’ which fasten onto the sides of the shoe.
The polymer the machine draws with was developed by German chemicals company BASF, and is radically different from traditional shoe materials.
Significantly, it is much more elastic than the rubber used in regular shoes, and according to Reebok, allows the wearer to more accurately feel the surface they are walking or running on.
“With this new process, we were able to program robots to create the entire shoe outsole, without molds, by drawing in layers with a high-energy liquid material to create the first ever energy-return outsole, which performs dramatically better than a typical rubber outsole,” said Bill McInnis, Head of Future at Reebok.
As well, the company believes their 3D Drawing technique is superior to tradition shoe manufacturing, as it is completely free of molds.
This allows Reebok to rapidly change or adapt shoe designs on demand, rather than going through the lengthy and expensive process of retooling factories with new shoe molds.
“With Liquid Factory, we wanted to fundamentally change the way that shoes are made, creating a new method to manufacture shoes without molds,” said McInnes.
The first such factory using this technology is slated to begin operation in 2017.
Similar to other new factories operated by Reebok’s parent company Adidas, the first Liquid Factory will be located in Lincoln, Rhode Island in the US, part of a growing trend towards high-tech reshoring.
Reebok has already created a concept shoe called Liquid Speed using this technology, which will be initially offered in a limited production run of 300 units.
This will likely then be followed by more mass-market designs making use of 3D Drawing.