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One foot in the future: How New Balance is using 3D manufacturing

When it comes to technology, the word 'revolutionary' has been used so many times it’s lost all meaning. But for footwear company New Balance, a move to a fully digital manufacturing process could fundamentally change the way it does business. 

“We’re on a path to 100% digital fabrications,” Katherine Petrecca, New Balance general manager, tells Essential Retail. The company is removing the process of using moulds and manual labour of components, she says. 

It has already been been using 3D for prototyping on a large scale for a few decades. Two years ago it partnered with Formlabs, a Massachusetts-based 3D printing systems company, to develop high performance materials, hardware and a manufacturing process for its shoes. 

It developed a new proprietary photopolymer resin to create springy, resilient lattice structures with the same durability as the traditional injection moulded thermoplastic method used for cushioning inside the heel of the shoe. 

A computer design is created and then sent to the printer, which contains a liquid resin that the laser etches the design into in layers. That takes just a day from the initial design compared with the previous process, which involved using two moulds and took up to five weeks. 

So far they’ve used the technology in two test runs of 500 pairs of shoes. However, she admits a full shift to digital design is “definitely a long way to go” as the company makes 90 million pairs of shoes. 

But she’s adamant it will arrive at scale. “3D digital techniques are going to make that old way of working obsolete.”

One huge benefit will be the reduction of inventory, especially as the company specialises in a huge variety of sizes for customers, sometimes with up to six widths available in a particular shoe. 

Under this technique it can take more of an 'on demand' approach. “Trying to predict what the market needs several months out on a global scale is nearly impossible,” she says. “This is an important step forward in reducing the complexity and enormity of reducing that supply chain.”

Knitting patterns

Another aspect of a move to digital manufacturing is the process of ‘knitting,' which allows designers to create the fabric design and then send it straight to the company’s machine to manufacture. To that end it has just bought new manufacturing space in Massachusetts to focus on its end-to-end digital manufacturing process. 

That means it can start using a “lights off” manufacturing model, where the machines run over night with little or no human supervision. By doing so the company will have vertical integration over its production process. 

“It is not something we can outsource at this point, it gives us that really direct control over the development process which is a huge advantage for us in having that expertise in-house.”

The next 3D shoe it makes “will not only be 100% made in US but almost 100% digital fabrication. It’s pretty exciting and is so close to being a reality,” she says.

“Ultimately the goal is to develop more distributed manufacturing, closer to the consumer geographically but also [improving] the time and speed to market,” she adds.

“It’s closer than we all imagine.”