This Small Business Innovation Research Phase I project is aimed at developing a novel cost-effective 3D printing process to manufacture shoes. Currently shoes are mass manufactured, typically overseas, using fixed molds that do not optimally meet the need of an individual. 3D printing of shoes offers the promise of providing individual customization tailored not just to fit, style, and colors, but to individual biomechanics and medical needs, the latter of which are being poorly met with mass manufactured shoes. However, a number of technical challenges exist to make 3D printing of shoes sufficiently cost-effective that it can be provided beyond just a select few individuals. This project develops a novel and cost-effective 3D printing process to manufacture components of shoes, using readily available and recyclable thermoplastic pellets. This novel 3D printing process will enable the manufacture of new, innovative shoe designs that cannot be made with any other manufacturing process. Additionally, it will make mass customization of shoes a reality, providing access to healthy customizable shoes for many individuals. Unlike traditional manufacturing processes currently being done overseas, this novel manufacturing technology is very amenable to implementing in the United States on a local level. Thus, this project will not only help move shoe manufacturing back to the United States, generating income for tax revenue, it will create new high-tech jobs in manufacturing.
This project develops a novel 3D printing technology to print a proprietary mix of elastomeric type material developed based on years of published research of the biomechanical effects of footwear by the proposer. The primary innovation proposed is a miniature-sized plasticizing screw-based extruder that reliably and consistently extrudes all types of elastomeric type material including foam, the latter of which, to our knowledge, has never before been 3D printed. Previous attempts using a simple auger instead of a true plasticizing screw have produced inconsistent and unreliable results. The goal is to develop a reliable miniaturized screw-based extruder, integrated into a specially constructed 3D printer sized to make a pair of shoes, whereby pellets are fed through a hopper. The extruder-printer design will be based on unique experience in extruding elastomeric types of materials and will be evaluated for reliability and consistency in a specially instrumented 3D printer. This technology if successful, will allow for a novel manufacturing process where a bank of 3D printers operate simultaneously, each producing their own made-to-order pair of shoes and/or shoe components. This system will offer the potential for a cost-effective footwear solution that is customized not only to fit, but to an individual's specific biomechanical and medical needs. Additionally, it will allow for the creation of novel healthy designs based on the proposer's research that cannot be made with any other manufacturing process.