Inventors and entrepreneurs from Massachusetts revolutionized shoe production — over and over again in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. They developed the tools and systems that transformed it from a labor-intensive craft to an industry that cranked out millions of shoes a year in vast factories.
A small Somerville company, Voxel8, hopes to revolutionize shoe production again, by selling a new kind of 3-D printer to manufacturers that will help them offer almost infinite customization, and avoid making too many extra shoes that don’t get sold.
This isn’t the first time a 3-D printing company has pitched its technology to the shoe biz: companies like Boston-based New Balance and Reebok have been experimenting with the technology in small, limited-run ways. Adidas this year started making larger quantities of a sole for a new shoe using 3-D printing technology from Carbon 3D, a Silicon Valley startup. (The shoes, dubbed Futurecraft 4D, sell for $300.)
Broadly speaking, 3-D printers build durable objects from digital designs, using a range of materials from powders to polymers to metals. The one that Voxel8 has built can use several different kinds of materials at once, which would let it apply different colors and consistencies of materials — some stretchy, others firm — onto fabric.
“The way shoes are made has to change,” says Travis Busbee, the company’s cofounder, CEO, and chief technology officer. “Companies like Nike and Adidas will have 800 different lines of shoes on their sites, each with three to five color patterns, and 21 sizes. They have to start designing each model of shoe a year and a half in advance of when they hit stores, and bet on that model being popular.” If a particular design isn’t a hit, then “they have to discount those to get rid of the inventory,” he adds. Busbee says the use of 3-D printing technologies will reduce overproduction, and accelerate the design-to-shelf journey.
While other 3-D printing companies have concentrated on making soles, Voxel8 is focused on the top part of the shoe, known as the upper. Busbee explains, “It’s more complex in terms of the number of parts, and the labor intensity,” or the amount of work involved in making it. The Voxel8 technology will be able to take a raw piece of textile and print high-resolution, full color imagery, as well as those rubbery grommets that hold the laces, and other structures to give the shoe stiffness.
When Busbee shows off a sample of an upper created using the Voxel8 machine, he notes that it was printed in 10 minutes. Compare that with 3-D printers that often can take hours to methodically layer on tiny amounts of materials. The printer his team is building is “not just for prototyping shoes, and it is not a publicity stunt,” he says. “There will be tens of millions of shoes made with this technology.”
It’s a bold pronouncement for a company that was founded just four years ago, has 12 employees, and originally launched a printer to crank out not sneaker components, but objects with integrated circuitry. Voxel8 introduced what it called the “world’s first 3-D electronics printer” at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show. It could do cool things like integrate an antenna right into the housing of a cellphone.
Busbee says the company sold about 100 of those printers, which were priced at roughly $13,000. But big electronics companies like Apple and Samsung didn’t exactly fall all over themselves to start using the printer as part of their manufacturing process. A few shoe companies, however, were more interested.
As Voxel8 shifted from building an electronics printer to focusing on the needs of the shoe industry, it laid off employees, and a previous CEO who ran the company for just a year, Phil Inagaki, handed things over to Busbee. Before joining Voxel8, Busbee, 28, had been a PhD student in the Harvard lab that originally developed the 3-D printing technology; this is his first experience working for — or running — a startup.
The company raised $12 million in funding in 2015, but Busbee says it will need more — a task he hopes to complete in the next few months. Voxel8 is also on the verge of landing its first big contract with a footwear company, he says. The key decision: should Voxel8 sign an exclusive deal with one of the biggest players, or work out several nonexclusive supply arrangements with smaller brands? Beyond footwear, Busbee believes there are other applications for the company’s printer, like sports bras, compression clothing, or braces — “anywhere you need reinforcement on textiles,” he says.
3-D printing is one of those technologies that sounds magical at first — design something, send the digital file to the printer on your desk, and it materializes. But who will actually buy and use the printer? There are now hundreds of startups and larger companies around the world offering different kinds of printers, for prices that range from $160 to beyond $750,000. Ben Einstein, the founder of the Boston investment firm Bolt, notes, “Finding applicable markets for many of these companies is turning out to be quite tricky.”
And over a few centuries of evolution, the footwear industry has gotten pretty efficient at what it does, notes Terry Wohlers, founder of the market research firm Wohlers Associates, which tracks the 3-D printing sector, also known as “additive manufacturing.”
“Most shoes are being produced in places like Asia or Brazil at very low cost, in very high volumes,” Wohlers says. “And even today, additive manufacturing is the inverse of that — it’s low volume, and high cost.” Wohlers notes that the speed of 3-D printing is getting better, and that “most of the major brands have dabbled in it, and introduced new designs,” with a goal of “drawing attention and showing what the future might look like.”
As for 3-D printing being integrated into assembly lines, used in a large-scale way to create the shoes we don for morning workouts or the Boston Marathon, Wohlers says, “the jury is still out at this moment.”