Print your shoes

In the future, we will print everything.

We will print toasters. We will print golf carts. We will print small children.

But for now, we are printing toys and shoes. Fast Company magazine has a good story this month on (among other high tech sports gear) Nike’s fancy “Flywire” shoes for the Olympics. They’ve been able to innovate rapidly by basing their super lightweight shoe design on… bridges. Here’s the story.

The inspiration for the new construction came from the cables on a suspension bridge. Rather than cords of steel, Flywire uses thin, strong-as-steel threads of Vectran, placed in fan-shaped clusters of between 10 and 20 strands, each about 3 inches in length. […] Flywire lead designer Jay Meschter’s stroke of genius was to stop thinking of a shoe as something assembled and start thinking of it as something that is, well, printed. When Meschter connected the two ideas of filaments and strength, his mind leaped to embroidery machines, which, he realized, print out lines and shapes using colored thread stitches rather than ink. If Meschter could stitch in 3-D form the cabling that holds up a suspension bridge, and anchor the ultrathin “cables” around a foot shape, he’d be able to create an ultralight shoe in the same time it took to stitch somebody’s name on a shirt.

Printing shoes has two virtues: it’s cheap and it’s fast. A fast, cheap product design cycle means that innovation can happen extremely fast, and the fruits of innovation can be passed on to the consumer rapidly. I find this story exciting not because I want to go buy some Flywire shoes but because this is one part of an accelerating trend. Printing makes design happen faster, and when design happens faster things get better.

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