New Balance Wins Race for 3D Printed Running Shoe

New Balance is set to release 44 pairs of its Zante Generate with a 3D printed midsole.

New Balance announced the limited commercial availability of a running shoe with a 3D printed midsole on Monday, marking the first time the general public is able to get its feet in a pair.

The US-based sporting goods manufacturer will release only 44 pairs of the Zante Generate shoe on Friday, April 15, at 9 a.m. at the New Balance Experience Store on Boylston Street in America.

The price of being an early adopter of new technology is never cheap, and the Zante Generate is no exception. The shoe is selling for US$400, about twice the going rate of the most expensive shoes available now, because the process is still costly. Said New Balance Global PR Manager Mary Lawton: “Cost is still one of the barriers to mass production.”

The process New Balance is using is called selective laser sintering. In broad terms, a machine spreads out a fine layer of powder only as thick as a human hair, then a laser passes over the surface, melting the area that will ultimately become the finished part—the midsole, in this case. This process repeats time and again, as the part is literally fused together one thin layer at a time, from the bottom up. When the process is complete, the finished product is dug out of the excess powder.

The Zante Generate features the same engineered-mesh upper found on the Fresh Foam Zante v2, a lightweight trainer, but in place of that shoe’s springy midsole foam, the Generate gets a full-length cushioning layer filled with bubbles or cells. These hollow spaces are what actually compress to reduce impact. Beneath that is a heel-to-toe clear rubber outsole for traction and durability.

While this shoe is the first model the company has made for the everyday runner, New Balance has been using 3D printers to fine tune its elite athlete footwear for a number of years. In 2013, the company outfitted miler Jack Bolas with a spike that had been tweaked, or “hyper-customised,” to his mechanics on the track.

The advantage in doing so is really a matter of efficiency, saving time and money in the development process. In a traditional model, it takes about a month to build the injection molds that create the parts.

“By eliminating molds, we are able to save an enormous amount of time in prototyping,” said Katherine Petrecca, New Balance’s General Manager of Studio Innovation. “Printing also provides the flexibility to easily produce multiple designs at the same time. We can print over a dozen different midsole designs per day in one machine. This allows us to easily test multiple concepts against each other rather than follow the traditional, iterative testing process.”

New Balance isn’t alone in taking this approach. Nike recently revealed a track spike, which underwent more than 30 iterations thanks to 3D printing. New Balance is likely to have company in the marketplace soon, too, with Adidas announcing its Futurecraft 3D project last fall, while Under Armour turned out a training shoe for gym-goers called Architech last month.

Aside from the speed of developing prototypes, 3D printing offers some advantages over the old molded process. It allows the fit and cushioning to be customized to the wearer, and it offers the manufacturer the ability to vary the amount of cushioning throughout the shoe. “We can control the size and density of cells, and also the thickness of walls in individual areas, to deliver different properties within one part,” Petrecca said.

There are, though, a number of reasons to believe we won’t all be walking around in 3D printed kicks any time soon. First, the price is out beyond what most runners would pay. Also, while the material is a big improvement over early attempts, it is still likely a fair bit heavier than ideal. Previous 3D printed objects have tended to be rigid and heavy or, as Petrecca said, “suitable for a museum shelf, but not something that you would want to wear and definitely not appropriate for running. New Balance’s new midsoles represent a real breakthrough in balancing flexibility, strength, weight and durability in 3D printing.” At press time, New Balance hadn’t yet confirmed the weight of this new shoe.

The Zante Generate is limited to 44 pairs in honor of New Balance Owner & Chairman Jim Davis, who bought the company 44 years ago in 1972.

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