Adidas Futurecraft 4D: 3D printing goes into production

This post is also available in: Italiano

We had been waiting for this news for some time. And it has arrived in explosive fashion. Adidas Futurecraft 4D will be the first mass production 3D printing project. The numbers put paid to any doubts: Adidas is talking about producing 100,000 pairs of sneakers by the end of 2018.

In the light of such an ambitious goal those in the industry are asking themselves if 3D printing is really ready for all of this? What really lies behind this extraordinary marketing operation? Let’s find out.

ADIDAS FUTURECRAFT 4D: A FUTURE OF INGENUITY

Launched in 2014, the Futurecraft 4D project immediately adopted a very precise identity, aimed at establishing new concepts of sports footwear design through the use of 3D printing technology. A project that Adidas developed in parallel with its traditional performance ranges and whose first commercial result was an extremely limited edition runner.

For the branding of the new line Adidas has focused on both the innovative concept and easy-to-grasp green marketing details such as the use of recycled ocean plastic. An approach that has guaranteed it extensive media attention, making Futurecraft extremely popular.

Today we are faced with the third evolution of the species, made possible by the introduction of 3D printing throughout the entire product development and production cycle. As well as being geniuses of communication, Adidas also know how to make quality footwear.

To develop the Futurecraft 4D project, Adidas opened the Adidas Speedfactory, an experimental production centre in Germany equipped with a series of 3D printers produced by US company Carbon.

Today Speedfactory is one of the most inspired examples of Industry 4.0 in product manufacturing.

“CRAFTED WITH LIGHT AND OXYGEN”: THE CARBON TECHNOLOGY

Adidas Futurecraft 4D’s eye-catching claim is based on the innovative technology of Carbon 3D, a start-up launched just two years ago that has already secured over $100 million in funding thanks to the contributions of ventures of the calibre of Google and General Electric.

What makes it so interesting to well-off investors?

The revolutionary CLIP (Continuous Liquid Interface Production) technology of Carbon’s 3D printers has three key qualities:

1 – Print definition, resulting from the high resolution and precision of the photolithography process (DLP) of the proprietary liquid resin, which requires just a few quick actions to eliminate imperfections from parts using Carbon Smart Part Washer technology.

2 – Print speed, a factor that makes Carbon technology more ready than any other for the production of large volumes of products. An aspect that sets it apart from many similar technologies, able to guarantee high levels of quality with a much slower process, perfect for prototyping but at the same time unsuitable for mass production.

3 – Characteristics of the materials, compatible with production because of their mechanical resistance and the colour alternatives available. According to the news coming out of Adidas, in tests the proprietary resin used in the DLS (Digital Light Synthesis) process guaranteed exceptional durability as well as perfect elastomeric characteristics. It is therefore a material that is able to fully guarantee the requisites of an industrial product.

The Carbon production process for the Adidas Futurecraft 4D production line is currently being fine-tuned. The aim of the Adidas Speedfactory is to create a sole in just 20 minutes, a goal it expects to achieve by the end of 2017.

MASS PRODUCTION VS MASS PERSONALISATION

One of the most interesting potential abilities of 3D printing is without doubt the possibility of being able to produce personalised products in variable quantities according to the on-demand requirements of consumers. A real trump card for manufacturing companies who will finally be able to realise the dream of mass customisation, a pipe dream for the last 30 years.

It should be pointed out that Adidas Futurecraft 4D is actually born from different premises that are not strictly connected with the aesthetic personalisation of the product. We are therefore quite far removed from the conceptual logic of a project like mi adidas, which also saw the German brand play a pioneering role in this type of initiative.

With Futurecraft 4D Adidas is not seeking to personalise the look with the result of having lots of products that are different from each other. The concept is the polar opposite of mass personalisation. The aim is to have a single product that is able to adapt to any consumer. In this case, the product is personalised by the shoe itself, designed to adapt to the biomechanical characteristics of every athlete.

In the case of Futurecraft 4D, there is just one single product. It is therefore the shoe, thanks to the structure of the midsole, that adjusts to the dynamic characteristics of each athlete. Its lattice design is the result of a data-driven process that has taken account of the characteristics of thousands of athletes monitored by Adidas over the last 17 years with the aim of predicting all possible forms of stress.

Here 3D printing is not required to produce lots of different products but rather to satisfy another fundamental aspect of product design: the ability to create designs that would otherwise be impossible to manufacture.

BEYOND THE “LIMITS” OF 3D PRINTING

With Digital Light Synthesis, we venture beyond limitations of the past, unlocking a new era in design and manufacturing, one that is driven by athlete data and agile manufacturing processes.” Adidas executive Eric Liedtke encapsulates this desire to go beyond the limits imposed by traditional mass production methods as well as the restrictions associated with a technology, 3D printing, which has so far been unable to provide convincing answers in terms of production.

Objectively speaking, the DLS technology of Carbon 3D printers overcomes the obstacles that had so far prevented 3D printing from producing large volumes: slow production speed, the insufficient quality of surface finishes and limits in terms of colours and materials.

IMPACT AND CONSEQUENCES FOR THE FOOTWEAR MARKET

The Adidas Futurecraft 4D project is not the only one of its type. All of the leading sports footwear manufacturers have launched production projects involving additive manufacturing technologies. Projects based primarily on very diverse concepts in terms of philosophy, design and objectives. We spoke about them on 3D Stories during the Rio Olympics, presenting the 3D printing projects of Nike and Under Armour.

Adidas has brought the 3D printing of shoes into the realm of mass production, triggering a potential chain reaction. The incredible media success of the Futurecraft 4D project has certainly not been met with indifference by its competitors who now find themselves having to “react” in order to satisfy a market that is increasingly attentive to technology and product performance.

It is now a fairly well established fact that 3D printing technologies represent the future of manufacturing in the footwear sector. The potential advantages outweigh anything else. In the short term we will see a continuation of the experimentation and evolutions required to produce rare and expensive items, natural objects of desire for the elite of the performance shoes market. According to the natural evolution of a production cycle, to reduce costs this standard technology will have to become mainstream.

For 3D printing to dominate the mass production sector a lot more time is needed. That said, we have to start somewhere. Adidas has seized the moment perfectly and their results right across their range seem to bear out their decisions.

N.B. - the preview image is property of Adidas.

This post is also available in: Italiano

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Francesco La Trofa

Francesco La Trofa

Architect and journalist with 20 years’ experience in 3D technologies.
Consultant to public entities and 3D businesses for aspects relating to design and communications.
Head of editorial content at Treddi.com and co-founder of Digital Drawing Days, the only event of its kind in Italy.
Actively involved in research and teaching at Milan Polytechnic.
Edits 3D STORIES for Protocube Reply.