To spectators, there was nothing special about the 4:01.44 indoor mile Jack Bolas ran at the New Balance Games in New York last year. He finished fourth, seconds off his own best time.
But the race marked a historic moment for New Balance and running shoe technology. That day, Bolas became the first professional runner to ever compete in customized, 3-D printed spike plates.
The 3-D printing revolution is driving companies and entrepreneurs to rethink how they can affordably build individualized products of all kinds. New Balance is leading the charge to customize running shoes using 3-D printing technology.
“Three-D printing will ultimately change the way we manufacture,” said Rob DeMartini, chief executive of New Balance. “In the future, we will be able to move product to market much quicker.”
Today, shoe makers use a single model — called an injection mold — to make a standardized shoe worn by thousands of athletes with a wide range of running strides and styles.
The 3-D printing technology pioneered by New Balance allows the company to design parts of a shoe based on an individual runner’s unique biomechanics.
The company is experimenting with the 3-D printing technique to create highly specialized soles and spike plates on shoes for its elite sponsored athletes, but intends to expand to consumer products that could become available at speciality locations.
During trial runs at a New Balance lab in Lawrence, technicians use sensors and motion capture cameras to create a digital model of a runner’s stride. The tools allow the researchers to understand the dispersal of pressure with each stride, tracking the direction and position of the foot on contact.
The company uses the data to design a customized spike plate or midsole with the precise elements of traction, stiffness, or cushioning to optimize the runner’s interaction with the ground. The shoe parts are “printed” in a machining process that applies a series of thin layers of nylon polymer to construct the exact form of a digital model.
“It’s very different from what we normally do,” said Katherine Petrecca, the company’s manager of studio innovation. “It opens up a whole new world from a design and performance standpoint.”