Though adidas has continued to make a significant dent in the additive footwear market, through its partnerships with Carbon and BASF, HP may prove to be the real winner in this segment as most recently demonstrated by a continued partnership with Brooks Running. The latest evolution in the two firms’ collaboration is the release of the Exhilarate-BL running shoe line, specifically designed and tuned to groups of sizes based on runner data.
3DNA Midsoles: Propulsive and Bouncy
HP has been working with Brooks Running dating back to 2017, when the footwear company relied on HP’s FitStation foot scanners to create personalized running shoes. Now, Brooks BlueLine Lab has collaborated with HP to create the Exhilarate-BL series, using HP’s Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) polymer 3D printing technology.
Specifically, MJF is used to 3D print the shoes’ “3DNA” midsoles, designed to offer a “propulsive, bouncy ride.” Moreover, the soles are meant to match groups of sizes based on runner data, such that they offer the best cushioning and spring with each step. HP claims that it independently validated that the midsoles “deliver higher energy return than 90% of the midsoles in running shoes on the market today.”
The shoes are being released in limited numbers as a part of a “test and learn” program, available to Brooks Wear Testers and Brooks Run Club loyalty members that sync their wearable devices via the Brooks’ platform. Wearable devices allow Brooks to access runner data, such as stride lengths and cadences in order to drive 3DNA forward in future iterations.
“Using HP’s 3D printing technology has allowed our design team to fine-tune elements of the midsole right down to the millimeter in ways that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible. As a brand rooted in the science that every individual has a unique motion path, we’re just scratching the surface in terms of how we can change the underfoot experience and use 3D printing to deliver a premium, performance run experience with the potential for greater optimization,” said Nikhil Jain, director of footwear product line management and BlueLine at Brooks. “As a brand, we are focused on doing our part to ensure the shoes that we are building take a lot less energy and virgin material to manufacture,” he says. “And from a sustainability perspective we are learning how 3D printing can help us on that journey.”
Tackling 3D Printed Footwear
This product is an interesting approach to personalization. It is difficult to achieve 3D printing’s dream of personally tailored products given the fact that the technology, associated infrastructure, and scale just aren’t there to enable mass customization. In this way, Brooks and HP are taking a page from the medical 3D printing playbook.
Right now, the most effective implementation of additive manufacturing (AM) for medical devices at scale is to offer broader size ranges than available with traditional production techniques. While every person may not get the exact item they’re looking for, they’re able to hone in much closer than previously possible. In that way, whether it’s a Stryker hip implant or a Brooks running shoe, 3D printing is acting as a bridge toward true personalization.
HP’s entry into footwear production has been a unique one in that it is tackling the segment in a variety of ways. While adidas leverages Carbon’s technology for the production of midsoles alone, HP has numerous users exploring MJF for midsoles, uppers, and insoles for sports footwear, designer shoes, and everyday casual wear.
For instance, Decathlon, Lonati Group, and HP produced shoes in which MJF was used midsole and outsole, while Lonati’s machines knitted uppers. Paris-based fashion brand and Reebok 3D printed entire shoes using HP’s process. Portland-based Hilos is relying on MJF to make casual footwear with 3D printed midsoles made from 80 percent recycled material. Barcelona-based startup ATHOS created mountain climbing shoes using HP’s technology.
From Footwear to Smart Watches
Perhaps more interesting from a business perspective is the fact that Brooks is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, which became HP’s largest shareholder in 2022. Extending the Brooks-HP relationship, then, is mutually beneficial. It also lends further credence to the possibility that Apple may be using HP’s metal binder jetting process to explore the production of steel chassis for the Apple Watch Ultra. Berkshire happens to be Apple’s second largest shareholder.
With all of this in mind, it would be hard not to bet on HP not only in the 3D printed footwear race, but in AM overall. Just ask Ye and Dior, shoes with 3D printed parts are on the verge of taking off—to the tune of $4.2 billion in revenues by 2025, according to the “3D-Printed Footwear 2020-2030, an Analysis of the Market Potential of 3D Printing in the Footwear Industry” report from Additive Manufacturing Research. HP’s technology has so far proven to be the best at high-throughput production of end use parts. There’s no reason, then, to suspect that it won’t conquer 3D printing like it did with 2D printing decades ago.