The largest player in the shoe game is jumping on the 3D printer bandwagon: At the RAPID tech conference today in Orlando, Hewlett Packard announced that Nike and eight other companies are testing the world’s first 3D printer designed for large-scale manufacturing.
The HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D Printing Solution costs between $130,000 and $155,000, and installation of each one can run into the millions, USA Today reports. Obviously Nike won’t be immediately running out to buy the new printers en masse at that cost, but the company has a good reason to start testing it out: HP claims the printer operates at 10 times the speed — for half the cost.
Tom Clarke, Nike’s president of innovation, tells USA Today that Nike has been using 3D printing for performance innovations (read: product testing) for a few years now. Nike wouldn’t, however, reveal what or how many products they will print with the new manufacturing-level printers. They’ve got competitors on their heels, though, as New Balance and Under Armour are already using 3D printers for commercial shoe parts.
Don’t start looking for Air Jordans or Nike Frees straight out of a printer anytime soon. First off, owning the number of printers it would take to accommodate Nike’s sales numbers is prohibitively expensive. Secondly, 3D printing isn’t fast. There are, however, a couple ways that Nike could capitalize on 3D printing technology.
Under Armour debuted 96 pairs of UA Architech running shoes with a 3D printed midsole and 3D printed upper design that ran for $299.99 each in March of 2016.
A month later, New Balance debuted the Zante Generate. The Zante Generates are for the mass consumer — but it’s a very limited consumer market that can afford the $400-per-pair shoes.
Neither dip into consumer 3D printing is high volume, and they aren’t affordable for the average buyer. But if Nike is able to take full advantage of HP’s manufacturing-level printers, it could make a cheaper, mass-produced shoe using 3D printed parts. The parts would still need to be assembled into a final product in one of their large factories though.
On-demand custom jobs
What is more likely to happen is that 3D printers will improve the market for custom shoes, a spokesman for 3D Shoes who wasn’t permitted to speak publicly on the matter tells Inverse.
“Customized is where the market is going to go,” the spokesman says. “The whole thing about 3D printing that is so ideal is that you can print each new model one at a time.”
New Balance describes the printing process as a slow grind of printing “layer by layer” of thermoplastic powder “over many hours until the job is complete.” Again, 3D printing can’t do speedy mass production. What it can do is create individual designs more easily.
The level of individuality that can be achieved with 3D printers is exemplified in other markets. Take the 3D printed gun, for instance, or the adult toy industry. Nike is already in the custom shoe business with their Nike iD line. Faster, cheaper, and more efficient printers could make Nike 3D an even bigger part of the company.
Imagine: Each player on every one of the countless teams that Nike sponsors gets their own slightly personalized variation on the team shoe. People could actually be individual and unique. Nobody has time or money for that now, but with 3D printer proliferation in the back pocket of a company like Nike, it’s not out of the question.