Nike incorporated 3D printing in the footwear industry as early as 2013. Initially it went through an experimental phase to find a suitable fit for its products. As the years went by backed with a strong corporate push the company benefited from its commitment to the technology by launching back-to-back successful 3D printed shoes.
Nike Inc. is an American multinational corporation that is engaged in the design, development, manufacturing, and worldwide marketing and sales of footwear, apparel, equipment, accessories, and services. The Oregon-based company is the world’s largest supplier of athletic shoes and apparel and a major manufacturer of sports equipment globally.
We explore how Nike transformed the footwear market by using 3D printing technology.
Nike decided to bring 3D printing in the footwear industry and it first began experimenting with the technology in 2013. It was during this time that it developed and released the Nike Vapor Laser Talon – the ‘first-ever football cleat built using 3D printing technology’. The company used Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) 3D printing technology to manufacture the plate of the cleat by using a proprietary material. Interestingly, the Nike Vapor Laser Talon weighed a mere 156 grams and designed to provide optimal traction on football turf and to help athletes maintain their “drive stance” longer.
This was a successful product, however, the company did not fully invest in additive manufacturing until 2016 through a partnership with HP, the developer of the highly celebrated MultiJet Fusion technology.
At that time, Nike’s President of Innovation, Tom Clarke said, “We are excited to partner with HP to accelerate and scale our existing capabilities as we continue to explore new ways to manufacture performance products to help athletes reach their full potential.”
2016 was the year when Nike focussed its energy to leverage the potential of 3D printing in the footwear industry. By partnering with HP, Nike developed a 3D printed track spike, the Nike Zoom Superfly Flyknit. On the developmental side, Nike collaborated with the American sprinter Allyson Felix before the Rio 2016 Olympics. Such collaborations with high-profile professional athletes are at the heart of Nike’s product development philosophy.
According to Mark Parker, the then CEO of Nike, “Always, always, the elite athlete still leads our design. What we learn from them is who we are. 3D printing will define product development for the next generation of elite Nike products.”
CORPORATE PUSH FOR 3D PRINTING IN THE FOOTWEAR INDUSTRY
2017 was an important year for Nike when after a considerable period of stagnant revenues, the brand decided to unveil a new corporate strategy to lead them to the next stage of growth.
The new corporate strategy titled the Consumer Direct Offense, is meant to generate the next wave of long-term company growth and profitability. The core of the strategy is Nike’s Triple Double strategy, which focuses on three pillars to generate 2X revenues. The three pillars being 2X Innovation, 2X Speed, and 2X Direct, which means to double the cadence and impact of innovation, doubling the speed to market, and doubling the direct connections with customers. Additive manufacturing / 3D printing is at the core of the first two pillars of this strategy.
Thus the corporate initiative led to huge investments in 3D printing technology and the focus shifted from traditional manufacturing to explore and deliver products through additive manufacturing.
With successive successes with 3D printing and the corporate push in 2017, Nike saw expansion in investments for full-time focus on capitalising 3D printing in the footwear industry. In 2017, Nike collaborated with the world’s fastest marathoner, Eliud Kipchoge to develop the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite. Eliud wore the 3D printed shoe to run in the Berlin Marathon in 2017. Even though the 3D printed shoes were super lightweight but they had some minor issues which Kipchoge pointed out.
The Nike designers reworked the design and produced a new version of the shoe named the Nike Flyprint – the first shoe in performance footwear with a 3D-printed textile upper. The tests started in early 2018 with Kipchoge and in spring 2018, Kipchoge wore it to run the London Marathon 2018.
With further modifications, Kipchoge again wore the Nike Flyprint to the Berlin 2018 Marathon to set a world record time and become the fastest marathoner. Following this, Kipchoge again used the Flyprint to run the INEOS 1:59 Challenge to break one of the final running barriers – the sub-two-hour marathon. Though not officially considered Kipchoge managed to break the barrier wearing the Nike Flyprint.
The development of Nike Flyprint saw the translation of complex athlete performance data from the Nike Sports Research Lab into prototype iterations with unprecedented speed and precision.
As recent as last year, Eliud Kipchoge was sponsored by INEOS for INEOS 1:59 Challenge to break one of the premier barriers in running – the sub-two-hour marathon. Kipchoge took the challenge to run the race with a modified version of the Nike Flyprint.
The rapid pace of new developments at Nike shows the speed of innovation 3D printing can provide. This pace is hard to match by any other existing manufacturing process.
(Note: The INEOS record set by Kipchoge was not official as standard competition rules of pacing and fluids were not followed and so the completion time of 1:59:40 is not considered as a world record but Kipchoge is still the fastest marathoner with his record-setting run in Berlin 2018 with a time of 2:01:39)
3D PRINTING IN THE FOOTWEAR INDUSTRY COMBINED WITH ATHLETE DATA
To manufacture the Flyprint upper, Nike used Solid Deposition Modelling (SDM) with a TPU filament, similar to a regular fused deposition modelling technology to develop the 3D printed shoe upper.
Using a proprietary variant of the popular FDM 3D printing technology named as Solid Deposition Modelling (SDM), Nike looks at normalizing 3D printing in the footwear industry. It is focusing its expertise on fabricating lightweight shoes by the use of flexible filament (TPU) to print the upper fabric.
The Nike Flyprint method starts with capturing the athlete data. This data records how the athlete runs and uses his feet. This data is then transported to computational designing software to appropriately design the material composition. This formulated data is then utilized by the SDM 3D printer to print the flexible upper fabric.
The fabric can be so structured that individual lines can be adjusted locally without affecting the global structure. This helps in location-specific rigidity & slackness. 3D printing the fabric also allows unique weaving designs to allow more breathing design at the same time being light in weight.
This process again establishes the fact that footwear manufacturing is changing. Footwear, popularly manufactured through the molding process, is now being additively manufactured. And most importantly the use of data in manufacturing is taking customization to a depth never envisaged before.
By concentrating serious efforts on leveraging 3D printing in the footwear industry, Nike has been able to develop new and innovative products. It has taken a unique approach to using the technology by producing only the 3D printed shoe uppers.
The current competition comes not only from industry veterans like Adidas, New Balance, Reebok, Under Armour but also from comparatively new Startups that also aim for a share in the footwear market.
But while 3D printing in the footwear industry is fairly new, Nike might already be experimenting with other sporting equipment. The space is still ripe for other sports equipment like tennis rackets, soccer balls, and golf clubs.
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