The collaboration between Formlabs and New Balance changes the rules in the shoe industry
July 5, 2019 in Case study
TripleCell allows you to create a new route.
Performance depends on details. In shoe manufacturing, this translates into design and materials, both linked by manufacturing processes.
In 2017, New Balance partnered with Formlabs to develop a 3D print production system to open up opportunities for innovation on both fronts, with unlimited design freedom to create products with optimized performance, a solution to produce at an affordable price and custom components on a large scale and a new range of possible materials.
This summer, the U.S. company takes a huge step forward in achieving this vision with the announcement of TripleCell: a high-end technology platform based on 3D stereolithographic Formlabs (SLA) printers and a brand new material, Rebound Resin.
“TripleCell allows us to create a new way of using data to document every millimeter of experience underfoot. Formlabs was a full-fledged partner in bringing this project to life. We really will be able to revolutionize the industry not only in terms of performance, but also in terms of athlete customization and speed of commercialization,” said Katherine Petrecca, new executive director of the Footwear Division of Innovation Design Studio.
New balance and footwear market.
Shoes are inherently complex products. Footwear is a high stock, a high turnover that often still involves much manual work and craftsmanship. New Balance launches thousands of models a year and a single model includes hundreds of colour and size combinations, with components made from different materials, tolerances and tooling programs.
As the demand for customization increases, the situation becomes more complicated. The modern consumer demands customized products that can be ordered from anywhere, from a variety of devices and delivered quickly.
To date, most companies have been able to offer highly customized products only once, using 3D printing to develop and produce highly customized sports shoes for professional athletes. In 2013, the first athlete competed with a shoe printed in 3D. Shortly afterwards, we saw other news in athletics, football, baseball, etc..
At the same time as these developments, 3D printing technology has evolved. In 2012, Formlabs introduced Form 1 to make stereolithography (SLA) powerful and reliable, accessible and scalable. Module 2 was followed in 2015 and since then users have printed more than 40 million pieces. Today, Modules 3 and 3L open the door to other possibilities in the field of 3D printing, including large parts.
Today, 3D printing is evolving to make mass customization a reality for multiple companies, with examples in all industries, such as the Gillette Razor Maker™ platform pilot project, which was one of the first examples of 3D molded parts intended directly for the end consumer and their use.
The freedom to design and manufacture high-performance custom products.
Most foam components in today’s shoes are produced by injection or compression moulding, which severely limits the design possibilities. However, the move to 3D printing for prototyping and production has opened up new possibilities that would otherwise be impossible to achieve with traditional manufacturing processes.
“What we could do so far is to design the exterior of the shoe and rely on the properties of this material to achieve all the performance benefits we are looking for. All we can consider as customisation are foam parts glued or printed together, with many assembly steps on the back,” explains Dan Dempsey, New Balance’s senior additive engineer. “By using additive manufacturing, we can essentially vary the mesh structure to alter the properties found within a single shape, which gives us the ability to design a system from the inside out, across the entire volume of the shoe.
This new way of designing opens up a new level of performance possibilities. And that’s exactly what TripleCell does: a perfect match with the entire insole, allowing a high cushion area to move into a high stability area in a single design and material.
Prototyping and manufacturing parts using 3D printing also transforms the entire product development process. Time-to-market is significantly reduced.
Why 3D printing?
“The usual time in the life cycle of our products, from the beginning of the paper to its delivery to the market, is 15-18 months. And when you build tools and expect foam or rubber parts, you have 4 to 6 weeks,” said Katherine Petrecca. “By eliminating the moulds, we can save months of development time. TripleCell technology makes it easy to produce multiple projects at once, reinventing the traditional iterative approach to testing. We had the ability to generate and modify thousands of options before landing on the high-performance, concentrated structures you see today.”
Development of rebound resin and a seamless 3D printing production system
At the beginning of the project, the New Balance team realized that they needed a very specific material that did not yet exist in the additives industry and an excellent partner to bring the whole system to life. In 2017, the company announced a partnership with Formlabs, bringing 3D printing technology to large-scale footwear production in Massachusetts.
Formlabs then worked hard with New Balance from start to finish. From preliminary research and development and iteration through hundreds of formulations of exploratory material, to the development of a workflow to take full advantage of 3D printing with rebound resin.
“It all starts and ends with the properties you can get from what you do. You can use the world’s fastest printer or have a $1 million printer, but it doesn’t matter if the hardware properties can’t withstand the application they’re meant for,” said Mr. Dempsey.
The new material: Rebound Resin.
New Balance and Formlabs have developed a unique custom material for New Balance to withstand all necessary production and end-use applications. The result is bounce resin.
Designed to create elastic and adaptable mesh structures, the material has much higher energy efficiency, tear resistance and elasticity than any other Formlabs SLA material.
Pushing the limits of shoe design and manufacturing
The TripleCell collaboration marks another important milestone in 3D printing applications, moving from prototyping to scale production.
TripleCell provides the basis to leverage unique athlete and performance data to create customized shoes in unlimited combinations and produce them on demand. This platform reduces development times and synthesizes the delivery of the concept to the consumer.
TripleCell technology is now exclusively available at New Balance plants in the United States.
The sky is the limit
“Our current situation is only a testament to the work we have done internally and the external partnership with Formlabs, which has really moved our program forward,” said Petrecca, Director of the Footwear Division at Innovation Design Studio. “We have proven that we are able to extend additive manufacturing and adapt it to a production environment. How far we’ll go next, the sky is really the limit.”