Reebok has announced plans for a new line of footwear that uses 3D printing to create a flexible and responsive outsole. In the new process, a proprietary, viscous liquid is applied to a flat surface to in the desired shape. The rubbery structure then wraps around the sole and along the sides of the shoe to connect to the lacing system, creating an exterior outsole structure that changes shape to respond to the wearer and environment. The process of applying the liquid to a flat surface has been called “3D drawing”, and puts Reebok ahead of its competitors when it comes to innovative approaches to producing footwear.
The process is the centerpiece of Reebok’s new “Liquid Factory” project, for which a new production center is set to open in Lincoln, Rhode Island, early next year. It will also function as a lab for experimentation with new manufacturing techniques. This news continues a trend of footwear manufacturers committing to produce goods within the United States. After decades of a growing reputation for manufacturing abroad with the use of cheap labor, Nike promised to bring 10,000 jobs to the US within the decade. Soon after, Adidas announced plans to open its “Speedfactory” in Georgia next year.
Bill McInnis, “Head of Future” at Reebok, and former NASA engineer, put the new development in context, saying “Footwear manufacturing hasn’t dramatically changed over the last 30 years. Every shoe, from every brand, is created using molds—an expensive, time-consuming process. With Liquid Factory, we wanted to fundamentally change the way that shoes are made, creating a new method to manufacture shoes without molds. This opens up brand new possibilities both for what we can create, and the speed with which we can create it.”
His department, “Reebok Future”, is a division led by designers, engineers, and prototype experts, eschewing a focus on quarterly profits in favor of making long term developments for the company.
The new method allows Reebok to efficiently produce shoes with the “first ever energy-return outsole, which performs dramatically better than a typical rubber outsole,” according to McInnis.
Reebok’s first sneaker to employ the new 3D printing technology is called the Liquid Speed, with 300 pairs currently available on Reebok’s website, ahead of the opening of the factory early next year. With so many advantages to the new method, it seems likely to be the first of many.