One of the processes is still only experimental for the moment, but it is being successfully impleted at an Italian pilot plant in Vigevano that produces around 100 pairs of customized footwear a day for a variety of customers, using a remote scanning system. The plant is run by ITIA-CNR, a major Italian research center and institute for industrial technologies and automation, but the ultimate aim is to turn it into a genuine pilot production plant.

The first facilities of this nature couldn’t really be located anywhere else but the heart of Vigevano, where they have been accommodated within the walls of a historic building, Ursus Gomme, that lives on in local memory. The ITIA-CNR laboratory is the end result of three distinct research projects on customized footwear machinery.

The first project, launched in the late 1990s, was purely Italian, and was followed by a European project, called EuroShoe, which ran until 2004, set up and managed entirely by ITIA-CNR. It brought together some 34 state and private partners from 10 European countries with funding of €17 million. The current new project, due to run until 2008, involves 54 partners from 12 countries, managed as previously in Vigevano by ITIA-CNR but in partnership with the European Confederation of the Footwear Industry (CEC).

In the mini-plant in Vigevano, technicians work alongside shoemakers to validate processes and products. The partners include components suppliers such as Silvy, Formificio Milanese and Formificio Romagnolo, technology companies such as Data System Italia, Torielli, an Italian producer of CAD and automation solutions, and Lirel, a Portuguese producer of logistic systems. There are also footwear producers like Italy’s Converter, for which the project is producing prototypes, and Fashion Gem, which are using the facilities for customized sports footwear. Other partners are Footlife, a consortium of shoemakers located in the Brenta river district, and Molinari, who are using the facilities to produce customized footwear for diabetics.

The extremely high-tech process begins when the customer enters the store, which may be physical or virtual. The salespeople begin by showing the customer the collection of footwear, with the different materials and components available, including heels, buckles and various accessories. The customer answers a series of questions about his habits and the use he intends to make of the shoes. A system of 5 cameras then photographs the customer’s foot, creating a computerized virtual image accurate to the last tenth of a millimeter. All the data relative to the shoe are then transmitted along with the virtual image to a magic mirror in which the customer sees the chosen shoes as if they were on his feet. The customer can then confirm or modify any of the elements, after which the finalized data are sent via internet to the factory, where the shoe will be produced within 24 hours and sent to the client.

It is now up to the individual manufacturers to face up to the challenges of implementing the new technologies developed with state help by ITIA-CNR, which is run by Francesco Jovane, former head of the EuroShoe project financed by the European Commission.

Less could be found out about a fast prototyping project being conducted by another Italian research institute in Verona in behalf of Veneto’s shoe manufacturers, but it seems to have already entered the industrial stage.

Meanwhile, Ergoshoe, a Spanish research group, has developed a laser foot scanner that makes a 3-dimensional model of a person’s foot to develop footwear for mass markets such as the healthcare and general labor markets. The technique, tested with hospital patients that had diabetic foot syndrome, ensures a manufacturer-to-patient turnaround time of about ten days, as compared to the 30 to 40 days it takes using the traditional measuring and plastic molding technique.

The laser-customized shoes will cost about 10-20 percent more to produce, and the hardware and software used carries a price tag of about €6,000 and an additional €15,000 to implement. Ergoshoe’s laser foot-scanning initiative was headed by Enrique Montiel. Like the recent EuroShoe project, it was funded by the European Comission.