The customization of shoes is taking on new dimensions and proportions with the advent of 3D printing, new materials and foot scanning technologies. One of the most interesting initiatives in this field is Feetz, one of the projects presented at the first conference on future materials and technologies organized by Slem in Eindhoven last December.
Uli Becker, a former chief executive of Reebok who spent many years with the Adidas Group, is an adviser and a minority investor in this project, which has an orthopedic bent. It was launched in the U.S. a year ago by a 39-year-old British engineer, Nigel P. Beard, and his wife Lucy, founder of the operation.
Feetz claims to have developed a technology, which it calls “SizeMe,” for the first fully automated line of customized 3D printed shoes, based on the model of a Volkswagen assembly plant. It uses a four-axis “halo” 3D printer, helped by robots, to make customized shoes for any user, processing the data collected by taking three photos of the foot that are sent to its web portal, nicknamed “The Digital Cobbler.” Feetz is also building a dynamic in-store scanning system for more precise calculations.
The project has already received funding from Becker and other investors for half of the total budget of $1.25 million set for its final implementation. It was enough for a recent soft launch of the software app with 500 test customers, many of whom had special requests or individual foot problems.
The system developed by Feetz uses special algorithms derived from the study of cases in the medical field. It can allow for the gradual re-correction of an individual problem, building up to the final orthotic. Feetz is also looking at the development of a predictive growth app for children's shoes in partnership with brands like Stride Rite. It is looking into the biomechanical re-soling of old shoes, especially for people who need compensation on one of their feet. It is beginning to make knitted uppers like those developed by Adidas and Nike.
Beard says his company can draw on 25 different materials to make the right shoes with its 3D printing process, but is only using six of them, with a plan to move to 12 shortly. The materials include special TPU's and unique 3DP materials that are biomechanically responsive. It is using pellets of these materials, blended with additives such as carbon fiber, which increases durability, or copper, silver or ceramic, which makes the material more porous to moisture, and scented polymers. The technology should allow Feetz to make fully customized ski boots in carbon fiber in the future.
The shoes are produced and sent to the customer in the U.S. within one week. At between $150 and $200 per pair, the price is reasonable for custom-made shoes with orthotic details. The manufacturing capacity is currently limited to only 200 shoes per month in Feetz' small factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The company is looking for additional funding to raise the monthly capacity to 1,000 shoes, which would allow a reduction in the pricing. It is considering licensing the technology and other types of partnership. One of the options is to set up a network of small 3D printing hubs of 350 square meters in various parts of the world to service customers in specific territories. They can be housed in the back of shoe stores.
Feetz has been nominated as one of the finalists in South by Southwest, a global conference on technological innovation. Selected from over 500 candidates, it will be showcasing its new designs on stage at this event during the March 13-17 conference in Austin, Texas.