3D Printing in Retail – Leveraging AM for Mass Customisation and Optimising Production

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September 19, 2022


3D Printing / Retail


3D Printing in Retail – Leveraging AM for Mass Customisation and Optimising Production

Additive manufacturing technology has proven time and time again that its benefits are vast and abundant in a wide variety of industries. Included in those sectors is the consumer goods industry, which covers retail items such as clothing and shoes. Though they may not always be in the spotlight, there are indeed companies making the move into 3D printing such products, and the sustainability and customizability benefits are worth noting.

Would you wear 3D printed shoes?

Perhaps the biggest of the names is sports goods manufacturer Adidas, who has repeatedly collaborated with 3D printer manufacturer Carbon to fabricate a range of additively manufactured sports shoes. The latest in the line is what Adidas has described as the “ultimate” 3D printed running shoe, the STRUNG. The STRUNG features the latest iteration of the company’s Futurecraft insoles, which are printed using flexible photopolymer resin on a Carbon DLS 3D printer.

The manufacturer’s new data-oriented approach relies on 3D foot scanning technology to get an exact measurement of a runner’s foot. Then, combining proprietary software and Carbon’s technology, the company can model the geometry of the footwear to the exact contours of the individual’s foot. As a result, the insole is not only more comfortable but is reportedly healthier to wear for long periods of time.

Another major name in the market space is multinational footwear giant New Balance, who previously updated its TripleCell 3D printing platform with the addition of a new sneaker – the FuelCell Echo Triple. The footwear initially launched with a retail price of $175 and features a completely 3D printed forefoot, which is the section under the ball of the feet. Much like Adidas’ products, the FuelCell’s 3D printed portion is made of a flexible resin on a Formlabs 3D printer.

On top of being able to show off the admittedly cool-looking geometry only possibly with an additive process, users also benefit from a significant weight reduction of 10% as material use is optimized. Since the padding is only printed where it needs to be, the design is significantly more efficient than its traditionally manufactured counterpart, granting environmental benefits on top of the production cost savings.

AM in the eyewear sector

Much like 3D printed shoes, the eyewear sector has also seen a 3D printed rebuff. Luxexcel,
a specialist in the 3D printing of lenses for prescription glasses, only recently announced plans to grow further into the smart glasses market with a revamped leadership team. The company’s previously developed proprietary technology is able to integrate smart features into eyewear lenses, resulting in “fashionable smart glasses”. The idea is that its customers – technology companies – will be able to manufacture their smart eyewear products while also providing vision correction functionality for users that may need it.

Additive manufacturing software developer Materialise also recently invested in Ditto, a producer of online eyewear try-on services, enabling customers to browse bespoke 3D printable frames through Ditto’s online shop. The company’s proprietary software allows for the creation of a precise digital twin of an individual’s face so they can ‘try on’ frames online before even purchasing anything.

Booming with AM

The technology has even managed to penetrate the audio industry, as a Czech design studio DEEPTIME was known for 3D printing the first commercially available speakers made from sand using the binder jetting process. Designed for home cinemas and offices, the limited edition ‘Ionic Sound System’ is made up of two passive speakers as well as an active subwoofer.

Unsurprisingly, the full set costs a pretty penny at just under $3600 but is reportedly worth the price tag with very high sound quality. The airtight, resonance-free body was formed using custom-made hardeners and pigments. All the components of the audio system, including the electronics, control rings, and connectors are custom manufactured with no visible bolts or joints.

The 3D printing of soft fabrics

Elsewhere, at New York Fashion Week last year, 3D printing from PolyJet system manufacturer Stratasys made an appearance through a novel technique. The company unveiled the ability to 3D print fabrics directly, in collaboration with esteemed fashion designers threeASFOUR and Travis Fitch. Using its J750 system specifically, the company was able to add polymers directly onto items in the ‘Chro-Morpho’ collection, resulting in otherworldly structures only made possible through the additive nature of the technology.

With the aim of making 3D printed soft fabrics more readily available to the average consumer, polymer specialists Polymaker and Covestro also recently announced the launch of a line of jointly developed 3D printable fabrics. The duo sifted through a number of suitable materials for the job but eventually settled on a TPU-based polymer, with two grades – 90A and 95A – being made available. The fabrics can be digitally programmed to deliver different elasticities, strengths, hardness, and even varying breathability where required, all through a proprietary software package.

Although the application may seem niche, it’s clear that there are some very well-known household names making use of 3D printing technology for consumer products. We’ve seen that the goods can not only be personalized for aesthetic purposes, but also for functional qualities such as the anatomy of the user or the geometry of the boombox – a concept very familiar to the additive manufacturing industry. On the other hand, manufacturers can also use technology to minimize material waste, maintaining that all-important bottom line.

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