For quite some time now, a succession of 3D printed “shoes” have been revealed to an astonished public.  At D2W we have been regularly caught up in the wake of these announcements, as people come rushing to us with requests to print their own shoe designs.

Putting all design and aesthetics aside, there are currently no commercially available 3D print materials that can produce a comfortable, durable and functioning piece of footwear.

We know this because one of our enquirers was an established high-end footwear manufacturer. They had already designed some wonderfully creative styles, that were certainly worth attempting using the technology (there’s really no point in trying to commercially 3D print a flip flop!) and wanted our help to make them a reality. We then quizzed all of the large scale 3D printer manufacturers and found no materials commercially available that could be printed either individually or in combination, that could produce anything that would be either comfortable or durable enough to produce a functioning and saleable shoe.

Now you may think to yourself, “but I’m sure that I’ve seen 3D printed shoes?” Indeed you may well have done, however these were nothing more than shoe shaped models. The fashion models that you may have seen strutting up and down a catwalk in a pair of 3D printed shoes, would have been in agony and the only question would be whether the shoes or the feet broke first. If you think a little harder, we are sure that any other 3D printed shoes that you may have seen, will either have been resting empty in isolation or if they are on a live foot, that foot is in the air and applying no pressure to the object.  Anything else that you see, may contain 3d printed elements, however a significant proportion of it will be made up of traditional materials assembled in a traditional way.

Of all garments, shoes undoubtedly take the most repetitive structural strain. When walking, not only do they bear the entire weight of the wearer but are subject to the compression and tension stresses of each step. There are no personal consumer products that we can think of, which are more challenging to produce with current 3D printing materials.  We have not yet seen a 100% 3D printed shoe design that responds to these physical realities and that would transform them from 3 dimensional shoe shapes in to what could honestly be called shoes.

We don’t discount the potential to 3D print a real functioning shoe using current materials, however the design is going to have to be very sophisticated in terms of the way the design moves and responds.  If you have something in mind that addresses these fundamental issues using current materials, then we would love to see it.

The overall objective of 3D printing shoes is by no means an impossibility, as the industrial 3D printer manufacturers are devoting a huge amount of time and effort upon improving and expanding the range of materials that are available.  However, until a combination of strength, flexibility and durability is achieved, a properly functioning shoe is still a fantasy.

We think it’s important that revelations about the potential of 3D printing are realistic, in order not to hype expectations and lead to disappointment with the current reality.  We expect that the releases of the required materials are imminent and this blog will be rendered obsolete but until that time, all 3D printed shoes remain merely clogs.