Improving sportswear with 3D printed wearable tech

There’s been some major strides in the realm of wearable technology and 3D printing, with some of the latest offerings looking like they’ve leapt from the pages of a sci-fi novel! It was slow-going at the start, but 3D printing has finally found its footing. The possibilities are seemingly endless, with everything from toys to human body parts all being on 3D printing’s radar.

One particular area that 3D printing is making strides is in the sports footwear sector. Here, the technology has found a real market for being able to provide a new level of adaptability and fit. Footwear experts and chukka boots supplier Frank Wright investigates…

The benefits of 3D printing

The scanning and mapping process of 3D printing can, in theory, produce a shoe that is fit uniquely to a person’s own foot-based differences. This highlights that there are so many ways in which 3D printing is perfect for footwear and sports wear in general. For starters, using 3D printing for prototyping and design cuts down the prototyping process.

The technology also broadens the potential design boundaries. According to Sculpteo, the technique allows for more “organic structures” in footwear design than a traditional process can do. Not only does this allow for shoes to be structured to the wearer, but it opens up all sorts of creative avenues for shoes!

3D printed running shoes

In April 2018, Nike announced a world-first with their newest running shoes, which featured an entirely 3D printed upper. The trainers were used by Keynan runner Eliud Kipchoge in the London Marathon this year, and they must have been comfy because he came first in the marathon. The shoe was designed based on the runner’s gait and foot form, resulting in a shoe that was quite literally a perfect fit. Nike also noted that the prototype process was far swifter than usual; the process was 16 times quicker, in fact.

Another pair of 3D printed running shoes was revealed by Reebok, though the design of their Liquid Speed Shoes was a lot different. Instead of the uppers being printed, the shoe has a “frame” printed through a BASF-created liquid. The frame is applied directly onto the trainer, resulting in a distinct, looping frame around the bottom and sides of the shoes. The frame is touted to make for a more comfortable fit, as well a high rebound when the sole of the shoe hits the ground.

Not to be outdone, Adidas has announced they are working on a 4D shoe. How the shoe has harnessed the fourth dimension, we’re not yet sure — according to reports, Adidas notes the shoe uses “digital light projection” and “oxygen-permeable optics” in its creation.

A long-needed update for ballet shoes

Did you know that The Royal Opera House gets through a massive 12,000 pairs of ballet shoes every season? The shoes don’t last long once the material at the toe wears away and exposes the toe box, and Dezeen notes traditional ballet shoes last around 10 hours.

Pointe shoes have been made to a fairly traditional process throughout their use. But while there’s a certain beauty to the craft, it would be difficult to say that it’s the most efficient, or even that it produces a fantastic product.

Common injuries from pointe shoes include:

  • Trigger toe — as a result of dancing en pointe with their weight held on the big toe, ballet dancers are particularly susceptible to trigger toe. This causes the big toe to become locked up, and a clicking sensation when trying to move it.
  • Bunions, blisters, and corns — a standard for ballet dancers whose feet are compressed in pointe shoes.
  • Dancer’s fracture — where small bones in the toes and feet break as a result of repeated foot movements.
  • Broken toes/feet — either from landing awkwardly or simply overwork, ballet shoes offer little protection.

If there’s anything that needs an update, it’s ballet shoes! Designer Hadar Neeman took the lead and did just that, after seeing her dancer friends suffering foot injuries from practicing their art. With the aim of improving a ballet dancer’s quality of life, Neeman has developed a method in which the dancer’s foot is scanned (via a mobile app), and the foot-map transferred to a computer. From here, a sole is printed as a lightweight structure that curves to the dancer’s unique foot contours, with the fabric upper fixed. Finally, the tip of the shoe is cut using a shoemaker’s last that Neeman developed specifically for the project, named P-rouette.

Volleyball shoes get an update

Most importantly, volleyball shoes need to be lightweight. Thanks to 3D printing, the shoes can be made both sturdy and lightweight. Much like the 3D printed running shoes, 3D printed volleyball shoes allow for similar levels of innovation and user-specific designs. According to 3ders, Chinese company Peak Sport have manufactured the printed volleyball shoe with an emphasis on cushioning and flexibility. Due to the nature of volleyball, players are required to jump frequently and quickly to respond to the strike of a ball, so cushioning is vital for both an optimum jump — as well as to protect the player’s foot.

Other ways 3D printing has helped the sports world

When you think about sports technology, you might think of futuristic designs and performance boosting miracles. But sometimes, the simplest upgrades have the biggest benefits.

Mouthguards are an essential in many sports, but thanks to 3D printing, they now have a secondary purpose. Hydra-Guard is a 3D-printed mouthguard with an added pouch located in the roof plate of the guard. The refillable pouch can hold 0.6 oz of liquid, and when the athlete needs a quick drink during practice or a workout, all they need to do is suck on the mouthguard.

What’s next for wearable 3D printed tech? Not only will it be exciting to see what innovations are yet to come, it will also be interesting to see how sports rules at professional levels adapt to keep the playing field fair when apparel is being developed to help us be quicker or better-equipped to handle exhaustion.



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