There's a new technological arms race being waged in the sneaker industry: 3-D printing.
Under Armour this week unveiled a "state-of-the-art" manufacturing and design facility in Baltimore, where 3-D printing is a prominent feature. The facility boasts "Star Trek"-like tools such as a "5-axis simultaneous machining center."
Rival New Balance launched a digital sport division at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, and in April released shoes with 3-D printed midsoles made with "selective laser sintering."
Futuristic as it may be, the 3-D printing craze harks back to athletic footwear companies' long history of competing not only on star power, but on the merits of their technology.
It comes at a time when the footwear industry has struggled to modernize traditional marketing techniques. Indeed, shoes endorsed by NBA star Steph Curry have had mixed success, boosting quarterly sales but taking a beating on social media.
Weak basketball shoe sales have been cited by retailers over several quarters, NPD analyst Matt Powell writes, as retro brands like Jordan remain the biggest driver of growth. But in the mid-1980s, Air Jordans commanded the highest basketball shoe price on the market, in part, because the technology behind the heel cushioning and toe lock-down was associated with Michael Jordan's breakout success, Foot Locker writes.
Kegan Schouwenburg is an entrepreneur at the nexus of the 3-D printing renaissance in footwear. Her company, Sols, allows users to create custom orthotics for $99 by taking photos of their feet with an iPhone app. The insoles can be made for a variety of shoe styles and comfort levels and consist of a combination of a proprietary 3-D printed polymer and multiple layers of foam and fabric.
"The industry is going crazy," Schouwenburg said. "I'm clearly not the only one that thinks this is where the future is. That's both comforting and scary, as we start to think of how we do things bigger, better, faster."
The company's most recent product release, Exosols, shows how custom 3-D printed footwear is beginning to rival price points of traditional mass-market products. As health-conscious trends like standing desks gain ground, custom-shoe benefits like healthier posture may move beyond just sneakers, she said.
"That, to me, meant being able to take out a piece of technology that everybody has — today an iPhone, one day Android — snap a few photos of your feet and keep that scan on file, much like you would for, let's say, a prescription for glasses, and be able to order custom-fit orthotics again and again against that scan," Schouwenburg said.
Because 3-D printing is custom and direct-to-consumer, there is little waste, rent or storage cost, letting Sols put resources toward anti-microbial fabrics and durability testing, and keeping high quality at reasonable prices, she said. Eventually she hopes to license the technology to retail brands or manufacturers.
But Schouwenburg has worked hard over the past two years to convince customers that 3-D printing isn't just for trinkets and Lego-like plastic, and that custom shoes aren't just for athletes or those with medical conditions.
"Our biggest challenge is expectations," she said.
Schouwenburg sees footwear as one of the first industries to actually answer the "big question" of what an average consumer might do with 3-D printing. While the idea has been around for a few years, early iterations of 3-D printed products gave some consumers the impression the products were cheap or not durable, she said.
"Someone wrote in the other day and she was like, 'I'm a mom, I'm a little skeptical. I'm not sure it's going to work,'" Schouwenburg said. "But I guess her son loved them, so she's getting some for her other son, and for herself. So sort of creating that trust, that relationship, it will be a journey."