The Future at Nike: 3D printing customized shoes at home

Assessing the path towards 3D printing your customized Nikes at home

 “One day, consumers will be able to buy a shoe design file from Nike and 3D print the shoe themselves”– Erick Sprunk, Nike COO1

As clearly recognized by Nike, the American sportswear giant, 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) is the future, both to optimize its production process and to continue to produce the most innovative sports apparel available. The company views additive manufacturing as a key strategic lever to achieve its goal of “scaling technology to deliver greater performance innovation faster” and “explore new ways to manufacture performance products to help athletes reach their full potential”2.

Thus far, the main application of additive manufacturing has been in footwear. In this space, additive manufacturing can improve Nike’s production processes, for example through further eliminating costly labor and faster prototyping increasing its speed to market4. Shoes’ performance can be enhanced through – among others – lighter, more breathable components, fewer frictional resistance between yarns and the enablement of data-driven customization2.

But Nike is not alone. Traditional competitors in the footwear space like Adidas and New Balance are doubling down on their additive manufacturing capabilities5, and new competition is arriving from crowdfunded 3D printed shoe manufacturers like Wiivv and OLT Footcare6. In response, Nike has partnered with multinational information technology company HP to accelerate its additive manufacturing innovation processes2. With current regular updates on its latest solutions, the future may be just around the corner – if not already here.

Nike has been filing patents for several additive manufacturing techniques improving its production processes. Most notably, in 2012 the company has filed a patent for “automated strobel printing”, a process that was previously highly labor-intensive4. By 2018, Nike stated its 3D printed prototyping process is 16 times quicker than “any previous manufacturing method7”.

In 2016 the company announced its first more revolutionary product innovation,introducing customized 3D printed shoes for top atheletes2. In 2016, Nike produced a 3D printed track shoe for sprinter Allyson Felix2. At the Olympics of that year, Felix won two golden medals – one less than at her previous Olympics8. A year later, runner Eliud Kipchoge attempted to break his own world record for the fastest marathon ever wearing Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elites running shoes – the first shoe with a 3D printed “upper”9. Although Kichoge came in first place, he did not break his record10.

The outcomes of these initial “real-world” testing of the 3D printed shoes do not seem to demotivate Nike. Rather, the company has strong processes in place to continue improving the performance of the shoes. For example, after Kichoge’s race, Nike gathered detailed feedback, and has since altered the composition of the 3D printed upper material to absorb less water9.

In the short term, Nike has stated to continue focusing on footwear for distance runners7. Nike is likely focusing on finding a way to attach the shoe’s upper to the midsole strobel, another labor-intensive process they admitted to currently be beyond the scope of their patent4. The company will also roll out its 3D printed shoes to more athletes to optimize the shoes’ performance.

In the medium-term, Nike will be looking for ways to bringing customized 3D printed shoes to customers beyond elite athletes. With its product capabilities in place, the focus will be on scaling the production while reducing costs to a level that consumers will find acceptable. Additionally, Nike has announced the next application for its additive manufacturing will be shoes for the NFL11.

Nike is clearly on its way to capitalize on the opportunity additive manufacturing brings to the sportswear industry and is turning its capabilities into competitive advantage. However, in my opinion the Nike management is too focused in its applications of the 3D printing technique; posing possible threats in areas currently left behind. To ensure they remain the world’s leading sportswear manufacturer, Nike’s management should free up resources to broaden up the applications of additive manufacturing.

Most importantly, they should accelerate the roll out of 3D printed footwear to soccer. Soccer is currently Nike’s 5th largest income stream3. Additionally, Nike’s performance in soccer has a large impact on its overall brand recognition and equity – especially outside the US. Failing to launch 3D printed high performance footwear in this industry could cause serious setbacks in Nike’s continuous head-to-head battle in the soccer space with competitor Adidas.

The question remains however how broad exactly the management should go. Should Nike perfect its footwear capabilities across sports before moving to 3D printed equipment such as tennis rackets, soccer balls and golf clubs? Failing to move into these applications timely risks the company losing ground as the all-round player in the sports industry. On the other hand, spreading its resources to thinly might slow down innovation in the footwear industry where Nike undergoes heavy competition from dedicated players who do not have to make such trade-offs.

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  1. Soper, 2015.Nike COO: You’ll soon be able to make shoes at your home with a 3D printer. https://www.geekwire.com/2015/nike-coo-youll-soon-be-able-to-make-shoes-at-your-home-with-a-3d-printer/accessed November 12th, 2018.
  2. Nike, 2016. At Nike the Future is Faster, and it’s 3D. https://news.nike.com/news/nike-hp-3d-printingaccessed November 12th, 2018.
  3. McFarlane, 2018. How Nike Makes Money. https://www.investopedia.com/articles/markets/080415/how-nike-nke-makes-its-money.aspaccessed November 12th, 2018.
  4. Nelson, 2015. Nike was just granted a key patent for 3D printed shoe technology. https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/nike-patents-3d-printed-shoe-technology/accessed November 12th, 2018.
  5. Peels, 2017. If the Shoe Fits: 3D Printing and the Future of Manufacturing Footwear. https://3dprint.com/174833/3d-printing-future-of-footwear/accessed November 12th, 2018.
  6. Scott, 2017. Prodways Introduces New 3D Printed Footwear Materials and Solutions, Collaborates with Nike. https://3dprint.com/177120/prodways-3d-printed-footwear/accessed November 12th, 2018.
  7. Nike, 2018. What is Nike Flyprint? https://news.nike.com/news/nike-flyprint-3d-printed-textileaccessed November 12th, 2018.
  8. Olympic, 2016. Alysson Felix overview.https://www.olympic.org/allyson-felixaccessed November 12th, 2018.
  9. Morby, 2018. Nike unveils ‘world’s first’ running shoes with 3D-printed uppers. https://www.dezeen.com/2018/04/21/nike-unveils-3d-printed-running-shoes-london-marathon/accessed November 12th, 2018.
  10. Scott, 2018. Nike introduces Flyprint Running shoes with First 3D printed upper. https://3dprint.com/tag/nike/accessed November 12th, 2018.
  11. Del Nibletto, 2017. Nike teams up with HP to 3D print shoes for the NFL. https://www.itbusiness.ca/news/nike-teams-up-with-hp-to-3d-print-shoes-for-the-nfl/96745accessed November 12th, 2018.

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16 thoughts on “The Future at Nike: 3D printing customized shoes at home

  1. Love this topic and analysis!

    Do you think Nike really is driving a competitive advantage with its capabilities in additive manufacturing? Relative to its competitors, it seems like they are on par with the industry trends. For example, Adidas just recently opened their 74,000 square foot complex in Atlanta and Under Armour built their Lighthouse facility in Baltimore to pursue additive manufacturing techniques and innovate to greatly reduce the lead time on new apparel (https://all3dp.com/3d-printed-shoes/). Overall, I think Nike still carries a competitive advantage in performance and brand, but they can lose their performance edge if they don’t keep up with the trends in 3D printing and alternative additive manufacturing processes. Thus, I agree they need to continue investing in this endeavor but only because that is how they will maintain their image for high quality and performance.

  2. Awesome article. I think you pose some really interesting questions around Nike’s next steps. I personally believe that Nike should move fast with this technology. They should not perfect their footwear capabilities across sports before moving to 3D printing on equipment mainly because the competition is just on their tails and will catch up quickly. The faster they can move into the market of 3D printing on equipment like balls, rackets, golf clubs, and more – the further ahead of their competition they will push. I definitely see your point about how moving quickly may spread them too think and slow down innovation, but I actually think that moving quickly could have the opposite effect. What I mean by that is that perhaps moving quickly into equipment could help Nike to innovate faster, as they will be able to test as they go and adjust as they realize what is and isn’t working. Overall, I think this is really fantastic and I am excited to see what happens next!

  3. Like the topic very much! (especially after today’s Nike case) . I definitely see your point that Nike should free up resources to broaden up the applications of additive manufacturing to stay ahead in the competition, but it is important that they ensure a proper quality standard before rolling out the application. As a sport brand, Nike have been trying hard to maintain their brand equity of superior performance, for example partnering with world class athletes. If they want to expand into tennis rackets, soccer balls and golf clubs, they should rather do it slowly than jeopardize the product quality and the image of high performance and professional sport brand.

  4. Great Article ! Additive manufacturing will definitely change the footwear industry. While reading your article, I thought about the impact additive manufacturing would have on pricing for Nike and its competitors. As you mentioned that they were able to replace a highly labor intensive production step in manufacturing with “automated strobel printing”, I realized that their production costs will definitely go down and so will production costs of their competitor. Will additive manufacturing make Nike shoe more affordable or will they just make a higher profit?

  5. Very fascinating to learn how Nike and their competitors are utilizing 3-D printing to enhance their manufacturing and product development.

    To answer your question, I think that Nike should focus on refining and perfecting their footwear brands before broadening their scope to other areas. Nike is a brand built on performance and reliability, which is something that may be called into question with these new manufacturing techniques. It was stated that 3-D printing can actually enhance performance through lighter, frictional-resistant customization; however the average consumer may be skeptical about the durability of the product. This is particularly important for the target market of distance runners that you identified that Nike will likely focus on in the short-term. Perception is very important when informing customers of this new, innovative technology, so I believe continuing to partner with high-performing athletes can showcase the external benefits of producing footwear with this 3-D printing technology.

  6. You pose a great question about whether Nike should limit its investment in R&D to footwear, or if it should start to expand to other sporting products. Because Nike has such an amazing history of R&D, and because this is a pivot moment in the industry, I wonder, can they do both? Should Nike be choosing between shoes and golf clubs, or should they be using their funds (or raising new funds) in order to drive research into 3D-printed sports equipment, and attempt to gain patents in that space. Because 3D printing has enormous power to increase the quality of products while decreasing weight and improving overall sports performance, I think Nike should be incredibly enthusiastic about this type of R&D and consider significantly increasing their R&D budget.

  7. Very interesting and timely article! I agree that Nike should move quickly into 3D printing for other sports equipment besides shoes. As we discussed during this week’s Nike Marketing case, Nike views itself as an innovator in the industry, so I think it is strategically important for Nike to stay ahead of the curve (or at the very least on par) with its competitors when it comes to additive manufacturing. I do question, though, whether the move towards additive manufacturing in this space, and the increasing product customization that it allows, actually diminishes Nike’s competitive advantage. Nike has built a valuable brand around quality and performance. When I go to a store to buy running shoes, I can try them on, but I can’t really get a perfect sense of how they will perform “in action,” so I might rely on what I know about the brand and, as a result, be willing to pay more for a pair of Nikes. But if I can design customized shoes from Nike, Adidas, or New Balance all to the same specifications, does the Nike brand become less relevant and the customer more price-sensitive?

  8. I had not idea Nike was working on 3D printed shoes, so learning about this work was insightful. I think its always important for companies to explore new technologies and leverage partnerships. Thus, I think its positive that Nike is already working on functional prototypes of 3D printed shoes and, even more, that they are doing so with an expert in the area like HP.

    That said, to answer your question about going even more deep into 3D printed and implementing it into different types of products… I am of the opinion that this would not be a good idea. The 3D printing world is still relatively young. The manufacturers of 3D printers are still reducing prices and increasing performance in enormous rates, thus it would make more sense for them to wait. Start experimenting without a huge company-wide investment.

  9. Great article, cant wait to print my nike basketball shoes in my room just before heading to Shad.
    I think that the greatest advantage of this process is that the shoes are extremely customisable and your shoe will adapt to every feature of your feet. This might be the biggest reason of the incredible performance of the 2 athletes mentioned in your post.
    I believe that Nike should focus on running before moving to other sports with their 3D process for the moment. They are still in the experimental phase and they have to get it perfect before moving to other sports. Like we have seen in the nike football case in marketing, the goal is not to be the first to develop this product today but to have the best product on the market when the market is mature.

  10. Thanks for sharing some great insights with us!

    I like Nike’s application of 3D printing in running shoes for top athletes. The brand is closely associated with track and field from its very beginnings, and this focus shows they are true to their identity and roots. In addition, running is also a very popular sport with a huge and growing base.

    I agree that the singular focus runs the risk of missing out on other opportunities, and that soccer is a great choice should Nike decide to expand its 3D printing focus. Air Jordan is another line that Nike can turn to for its continued innovation. An alternative dimension in terms of expansion, I’d propose, is to get into running/cross training shoes for the mass market. For example, Nike can have a section on its website where customers can design a customized pair of shoes to be 3D printed and delivered to them. The process can be recorded in a video to accompany the shoes. Customers will likely be willing to pay a premium for these shoes and the new “product” will likely create a lot of buzz as well.

  11. I agree with the stance that additive manufacturing is the way of the future, but I cannot help but wonder whether it takes away from the “art” of a Nike shoe. In the Nike case, we saw individuals often have an emotional connection to their athletic shoes and I fear that removing human labor from most of the production process and replacing it with the face of technology will make the relationship far more cold. Aspiring athletes want to feel as though their favorite athlete produced their shoe, not a machine. When the shoes are produced in-house I think it’s easier to imagine this, but with 3D printing at home, it is more of a transaction.

    In addition, I wonder how Nike as a company grapples with the prospects of replacing a large number of human jobs with a machine. Through the history of Nike, it is apparent that they take human working conditions seriously. For such a large company fueling such a large number of jobs, is it the company’s social responsibility to find other ways to employ the individuals that this technology is replacing?

  12. Fascinating topic! I think that additive manufacturing is necessary area of exploration and focus for Nike in order to remain competitive on a cost basis with Adidas, UnderArmour, etc. However, I do not think that Nike should look to print all of its products. Assuming the quality is on par with Nike’s manufactured shoes, the printed shoes might still encounter issues and push back from the consumers. For many Nike products, especially in the basketball line, the pent up demand is a function of the limited supply of the shoes. Once customers can print whatever Nike shoe they want, the ubiquity might have detrimental effects on the brand by reducing the initial allure of the shoes. I think Nike also needs to focus on which products, even within the footwear space, would be optimal for prints. I think evidence of this distinction already exists when examining which models of sneakers Nike currently offers for custom ID design.

  13. I definitely agree that Nike should start thinking more broadly about 3D printing applications beyond professional sports, or even footwear. The ability for 3D printing to create personalization can open so many doors for Nike. Keeping with footwear, users can likely optimize for flexibility and breathability depending on what they plan to use the footwear for, and print for the optimal “mix” depending on their specific size, height and other physical statistics. This level of personalization would definitely be a key differentiator and profit generator. Secondly, there are thousands of individuals across the globe that currently lack real access to footwear (and beyond that, often clothing) because they have small/large sized feet, have been injured in some form, or were born with abnormalities that require sizes that fall outside of what traditional producers deem “normal”. 3D printing promises to overcome the challenges for these individuals, by allowing them to print in a size and shape that works for their body. This to me is the most powerful use- and I would urge Nike to adopt a “social” mission in partnering with those that currently lack accessibility to “normal” footwear!

  14. I found the opening quote by the COO very fascinating, but I am very skeptical. I don’t see people able to 3D print in their homes for a number of reasons (piracy, no economies of scale, technology not that entrenched), but I could see you walking into a Nike store and printing a shoe that is customized to your foot and your preferences. I believe shoes are much more well-suited to 3D printing than sports equipment because the material properties matter a bit less, there have higher margins, and they are better suited to customization.

    Additionally, it is interesting to consider how 3D printing of shoes will impact Nike’s supply chain. Will they have enough capacity to print shoes in a store? Will there be produced and shipped to you? Will they want to scan your foot for a customized fit, and if so, how can you do this from your home?

  15. Very interesting article! I think what Nike is doing in terms of R&D is very cool, although I do question its ability to scale to the point where it actually makes production more efficient. One thought would be to just have 3D printers in every store which would enable you to have zero inventory, but the technology is definitely not there yet.

    To answer your question, I wouldn’t expand the footwear experimentation to other sports until it was perfected, but I would expand to other products in the meantime. Experimenting with one of every product type but for only one sport. Focusing their resources on single product areas would be significantly more efficient and they shouldn’t risk moving resources from their major business lines without knowing for certain the technology was ready. Nike would be risking a lot in terms of quality perception by rolling this out too quickly, and I don’t think its extremely urgent as competitors are still figuring out the technology as well. I also see the biggest benefits in production and not necessarily in the consumer experience, as such the risk is more financial than with consumer demand.

  16. This is a really great article to explain how additive manufacturing is proactively utilized in the competitive sportwear market. To the question raised here, I would say that it’s better for Nike to focus on shoes in one sports until its 3D printing technology reaches the level that it can scale up additive manufacturing. In my knowledge, it is still costly to use additive manufacturing as a sole production method given its high investment cost in 3D printers – also, the technology exponentially improves given its early stage, so Nike may need to renew its 3D printers frequently for better performance. This will be the same situation for Nike’s competitors, so I’d recommend focusing on one product and perfecting its technology in order to maintain as a technological leader in additive manufacturing in the sportwear industry.

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