The Growing Impact of 3D Printing on the Footwear Manufacturing Industry

Like many industries around the world, the global footwear manufacturing industry faced challenges in 2020 and onward due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in some ways continues to feel the impact of it today. Sales fell as consumers stayed at home and some faced new financial constraints, while supply chain issues caused long delays and unforeseen expenses. Footwear manufacturers explored new sourcing and manufacturing options, and some tested the direct-to-consumer waters.

Today, customer buying habits and needs have at least partially returned to normal, and many companies have abandoned the DTC model in favor of the benefits that wholesaling provides. However, the current global political climate and the challenges of international operations have businesses turning to other countries from which to base their manufacturing plants, with some opting to operate domestically in order to avoid the complexities and risks of offshore production.

A Market in Recovery

The global footwear market was valued at roughly $380 billion dollars in 2022, with 22 billion pairs of footwear being produced annually. While this is down from a total of more than 24 billion pairs in 2019, the industry is expected to see growth over the next several years as it recovers from pandemic challenges and develops new manufacturing processes and strategies. Athletic shoes make up the fastest-growing segment of the market, while the market for formal shoes began recovering last year as more people returned to the office and attended more weddings and other formal gatherings.

The vast majority of footwear production — around 90% — is currently based in Asia, with billions of products exported around the world. The largest importer by far is the United States, bringing in 2.4 billion pairs of footwear in 2021 according to Statista. Germany, the world’s second-largest importer, accounts for just 631 million pairs.

The Challenges of Footwear Manufacturing

Footwear manufacturing is an expensive and time-consuming process. The design and prototyping stage, for example, typically requires much iteration in order to create the ideal look and feel, and each prototype takes time to manufacture and assemble, as it involves multiple components of various materials. When manufacturing is being done overseas, it can take weeks for an individual prototype to be assembled and shipped to the designers for them to evaluate and provide feedback, before the process begins again for the next iteration. This means it can be several months before a new shoe or boot model is ready to begin production.

Labor is another challenge when it comes to footwear manufacturing. With such a labor-intensive product, footwear manufacturers have traditionally gone to countries with low wages for production. With rising wages in China over the past decade, many manufacturers have moved to countries such as Vietnam and India, though many moved back to China during the pandemic when other countries shut down operations temporarily. Despite decades of high import tariffs on footwear in the US, American companies still find it more economical to manufacture outside the country even with the drawbacks of overseas production.

As wages gradually rise in countries around the world, this strategy will become less viable, and some companies are already investigating ways to produce footwear closer to home. They are also becoming increasingly concerned with reducing waste. In the US, hundreds of millions of shoes and other footwear end up in landfills annually, and those shoes typically contain non-biodegradable material. With growing pressure towards environmentally friendly operations, businesses are looking for more sustainable materials and practices.

The Advantages of 3D Printed Footwear

3D printing offers a possible solution to the challenges of cost, time, and sustainability. Several companies are developing products and processes that facilitate the production of prototypes and entire product lines via 3D printing and related technologies, and some footwear manufacturers are already adopting them.

Additive manufacturing solutions such as 3D printing aren’t new to the footwear manufacturing industry, particularly for prototyping. They allow for quick production of functional prototypes and make iterating on a design easier and more efficient. Advanced 3D printers can use production-ready materials that accurately represent the final product, and having a printer on site with the designers means not needing to wait weeks to receive a finished prototype.

The use of 3D printing and 3D knitting can reduce the complexity of footwear assembly significantly, requiring fewer materials and individual components. It also allows for a greater degree of automation, enabling smart factories to produce finished products with less labor and making local labor costs less of a barrier to setting up a domestic facility rather than manufacturing the product overseas. This type of production process also makes it significantly easier and less costly to offer customized shoes made to fit buyers’ personal measurements and design preferences. A custom fit makes for more satisfied customers and fewer returns, which helps reduce both waste and costs.

Using 3D printing to produce part or all of a shoe also reduces waste, as there’s no need to cut materials to the right size before assembly. In addition, it makes it easier to incorporate more sustainable materials into the product. Manufacturers have been steadily increasing their use of recycled materials over the past several years, and the sustainable footwear market is expected to be worth almost $12 billion by 2027.

One company is taking 3D-printed footwear even farther. UAE-based footwear startup Elastium is developing fully 3D-printed footwear made from 100% recycled foam materials. Made from low-density TPE foams, the resulting sneakers are soft but resilient, with cushioning and a fit that can be personalized to the individual wearer. The products are all one continuous structure, without separate components such as the upper and insoles. They’re even machine washable.

With a production process based completely on 3D printing, Elastium is able to make its products on-demand and locally, dramatically reducing its environmental impact by removing overseas manufacturing from the equation. The company also plans to offer a platform that allows individual creators and brands to produce their own products with.

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