As technological innovations continue to revolutionise science, industry and business, we eventually see all that innovation trickle down the retail pipeline. This leads to improved products that we use every day – ones we assumed were as good as they could get. That includes the sneaker.
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Technology makes our shoes more comfortable, stylish and helps them perform better. Improvements in manufacturing, the use of robotics, 3D printing and even the addition of sensors into midsoles all make our sports shoes better than ever before.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest tech innovations in the sneaker industry today.
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1. Midsole technology
During the past few years we’ve seen a slate of innovations around the design, manufacture and performance of sneaker midsoles.
The core structural element in a performance shoe, high-tech midsoles have become easier to notice in recent years due to their conspicuous shapes, but the biggest difference is certainly how they feel on your feet.
Here are two of the best examples.
Lauded for its cushioning properties and high energy return, Adidas’s Boost technology has helped the brand cement an even more dominant position in the sneaker industry since it was released in 2013.
Featuring small foam capsules that are moulded together during manufacturing, the hard-wearing material is noted for staying responsive even after intense wearing in.
Add to that its eye-catching “chubby” silhouette on popular models such as the Ultra Boost and NMD, along with a clutch of high fashion collaborations, and it’s little wonder why Boost became a household name so quickly.
Nike’s ascendance in the foam game is still ongoing as of February this year. Similar to Boost, the release of the React has given us a moulded foam midsole offering a lot of cushioning and high energy return.
Nike also manufactures React soles using proprietary algorithms that give the foam a tailored surface geometry for individual shoe sizes.
This is a much more technical solution to the traditional “add or subtract” system used to calculate the amount of materials needed for different sizes.
2. 3D printing
While the use of 3D printing in shoe manufacturing is not a new idea any more, perhaps the most popular example is the Adidas 4D Futurecraft sneaker. But what is it exactly?
What Adidas hailed enthusiastically as the dawn of a new era in sneaker manufacturing, the Adidas Futurecraft 4D began as a concept silhouette in 2017, with its first public release following at the start of this year.
The sneaker features a Primeknit upper attached to a 3D-printed sole that uses technological whizzbangery that not everyone entirely understands (“crafted with light and oxygen”).
But one of the most interesting features is the midsole, which has a complex lattice structure that reportedly provides better energy returns than other midsoles on the market.
While the shoe’s performance is of high interest, Adidas plans to eventually allow customers to mould the soles to their individual feet shapes for a level of comfort not seen in a mass-produced shoe to date.
3. High-tech fabrics
Woven fabrics have been a game-changer to sneaker comfort in recent years. They're used to make one-piece uppers featuring a soft and pliable weave.
If you’ve never worn it before, it feels like wearing stretchy socks wrapped over your socks. Even better than that, imagine these socks are attached to a comfortable VaporMax or Boost midsole.
Why would you ever take them off?
Practically every big manufacturer has a selection of tech-infused knitted uppers on the market, with Adidas’s Primeknit and Nike’s Flyknit the oft-seen examples. Then there’s Evoknit from Puma and Reebok’s Ultraknit – the list goes on.
Flyknit, which Nike also calls 4D Knit, has been around for a few years now. Nike says the manufacturing process involves feeding fabrics such as nylon, polyester and spandex into knitting machines that work with a mix of fibres and can even handle up to 10 colours simultaneously.
These machines are programmable for a broad selection of designs. That means uppers can be either thin and stretchy for comfort, or thicker and firmer to provide more structural support around the foot.
US researchers have even developed a knitted fabric containing solar cells made from polymer fibres, with hopes that manufacturers would use it to create self-powering smart sneakers that can monitor health and performance-related data.
With the rise of 3D printing enabling manufacturers to craft shoes that perform better and feel more comfortable, brands such as ECCO have capitalised on the technology to give the entire retail experience a boost.
ECCO launched a pilot project in 2015 called QUANT-U, which uses technology to produce 3D-printed silicone midsoles that customers can customise for themselves.
First introduced at Amsterdam shoe store W-21, customers have their feet laser-scanned before walking on a treadmill for 30 seconds while wearing shoes packed with sensors, with the data they generate used to create an algorithm indicating their ideal sole.
Right as this data is visualised on an in-store display, a pair of 3D printers start creating the soles until, two hours later, they’re ready to be inserted into shoes the customer has already selected.
While this type of retail experience is a way off becoming a common sight, owning hyper-customised sneakers made using 3D printing is a sign of what’s to come.
5. Robotic automation
Nike and Adidas have been investing in sneaker production automation in recent months. The technology reportedly allows for a time saving of up to 20 per cent over traditional manufacturing – or up to 20 times the speed of humans.
Not only that, but robotics allow for more precise methods to, for example, add colour to a sneaker midsole. This provides a more refined overall product and a better experience for the wearer.
To bring this technology to market, Adidas has built 'Speedfactories' to produce small batches of sneakers that allow the brand to offer more agile designs and respond faster to rapidly changing fashion trends.
Adidas currently takes up to 18 months to release a sneaker – all the way from initial design to production and delivery – but wants to cut that down to only 45 days.
For its part, Nike has invested in robots that use electroadhesion, which enables them to pick up and move materials using static electricity, to construct sneaker uppers.
What this all means for consumers is that sneakers are manufactured more quickly, are of higher quality, and can be purchased through a more customisable retail experience.
6. Smart sneakers
Putting sensors in sneakers to make them “smart” like other wearables is not a new idea. We saw this with Nike+ training shoes several years back, along with similar offerings from other brands.
One such brand is Under Armour, which dropped the HOVR connected shoe in February this year. Using a 'Record Sensor' chip embedded in the shoes, data pulled from a workout is then sent to the MapMyRun app, which initially asks you to shake your right shoe to activate the chip.
Under Armour is, of course, touting this as the next big thing in fitness tracking tech, with data that the app pulls up enabling you to drill down your workout routine.
Nike, on the other hand, recently announced the AF1 NikeConnect QS NYC, which was available for purchase through the Nike SNKRS app.
This was a slightly different application of smart tech – namely the addition of gamification to the retail experience – with an NFC chip embedded into the sneaker.
After scanning the chip with their smartphones, customers would then get access to exclusive sneaker drops. Who knows what to expect next?
This article is part of our Tech Innovation for the Future series, brought to you in association with Honor.