The footwear in question was made by New Balance, which recently unveiled what it claims is the first midsole to be produced by a 3D printer. It's not the whole shoe – just the insert that personalizes the item for the consumer's unique foot. The buyer is measured at the store and put on a treadmill. The resulting data on size and running style go into creation of the customized midsole.
That might seem like a modest step forward in the development of 3D printing. How radical is the production of an item that already comes out of a mold and is relatively easy to make? But the real innovation isn’t about the product, says Richard Howells, vice president of extended supply chain with SAP SE. It’s about time.
The idea is that the customer can walk (or run) out of the store wearing that newly purchased, tailored shoe. The wait might be half an hour, but that’s better than the days or weeks it used to take to acquire something so uniquely fashioned. In the process, says Howells, the product becomes more affordable, because 3D technology is designed around the very concept of the “one-off” item.
The same goes for a new pair of sneakers that might include a team’s logo or colors, which could be ordered within seconds on a computer, but otherwise might require weeks for delivery.
It seems as though 3D printing today is everywhere. We hear of applications related to toys, medical devices, automotive parts, even food items such as personalized chocolates. Whether all of those categories constitute actual 3D printing, versus traditional mold making, depends on how broadly you want to define the term.
Clearly we’re still in the early days of the technology, if not well advanced along the hype cycle. In 2015, the Gartner consultancy placed various aspects of 3D printing along all points of the cycle, with medical devices at the “peak of inflated expectations,” dental devices in the “trough of disillusionment,” and hearing devices just reaching the “plateau of productivity.” Gartner’s 2016 report sees the technology as “disrupting” the healthcare and manufacturing sectors. For the moment, though, 3D printing is all over the map.
Which doesn’t stop industry observers from lauding its potential. “3D printing is going to revolutionize how we bring products to market in general,” says Howells. “What’s happening now is that companies are looking at different ways of how to leverage the technology.”
Small items such as customized drinks from vending machines – and there, the use of the word “printing” seems a stretch – are one thing. Complex machines such as vehicles are another. Howells notes that Harley-Davidson went from producing an individualized bike in 21 days to just eight hours. It redesigned its manufacturing plant to focus on that service.
When it comes to automobiles, however, 3D printing appears to overturn the venerable notion of mass production. It was that method, pioneered in large part by Henry Ford, that made possible the availability of affordable cars like the Model T. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that 3D printing seems poised to take off in the era of Facebook, the selfie and the celebration of the individual. The only question: can it be deployed in a manner that makes economic sense? Is the term “mass customization” an achievable dream, or an oxymoron?
To Howells, the success of this ground-breaking concept depends on a method of production that’s anything but new: the construction of a basic platform to which the manufacturer can add features at the request of each buyer. Decades ago, Hewlett-Packard pioneered the idea with its line of printers, which could be equipped with power cords, manuals and other add-ons aimed at localized markets. BMW’s Mini offers thousands of variations on a basic car. Herman Miller took a similar approach to office furniture.
To that simple idea of postponement must now be added a new way of creating the items that make a personalized product. You might say the concept of mass customization was waiting for 3D printing to emerge before it could be fully exploited. The one-off production method is an ideal if not essential element of the strategy.
Still, Howells acknowledges, 3D printing won’t work in every instance. “Lifestyle” products such as Harleys are well-suited for the technology; mass-market items less so. And when the technique is put into play, manufacturers will have to create hubs that can efficiently turn out an endless variety of products targeted at the individual consumer.
Materials that go into the products will have to change as well. “You get to the point where you have to take into account how you can physically make product,” says Howells. “The whole fundamental concept of how you design products changes.”
Much of the talk in the general media about 3D printing has focused on the technology being deployed in homes or small businesses. Howells considers that brand of 3D printing to be a novelty at the moment. “It’s evolving,” he says. “We’re a ways away from printing a sneaker at home.”
But not that far from deploying 3D printers on a grander scale. Running shoes aside, Howells believes the biggest barrier to progress at the moment is the speed of the printer, not its cost. He predicts a “significant” increase in use of the technology within the next two to three years. Ultimately, he says, “We’re limited only by our own thoughts on how we can leverage this technology.”
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