The future of running? Adidas and Nike both want to 3D print your trainers

Our running expert thinks you’ll soon be lacing up made-­to-­measure, 3D ­printed athletic shoes

There's a new race going on in the running shoe world. Sporting giants Adidas and Nike are locked in a head ­to­ head/foot to foot tussle to see who can be the first to offer bespoke footwear, printed in store, to fit your feet and running style perfectly. That future is a way off... but the battle has begun.

Last week, excellently named Nike Chief Operating Officer Eric Sprunk told the GeekWire Summit that work has begun on developing the technology to enable people to print their own shoes at home.

"We have a huge initiative in our company called manufacturing revolution. It's really just innovation in manufacturing. If you look at 3D printing, knitting, automation, robotics, motion sensing and cameras... now you can automate all of that," he said.

"Do I envision a future where we might still own the file, from an IP perspective — because it's a Nike product; you can't have just anybody make a Nike product — and you can manufacture that either in your home or we will do it for you at our store? Oh yeah, that's not that far away."

Adidas followed that this week by whipping some rather clever new shoes out of the box. The Three Stripe giant one-upped the Swoosh by revealing its Futurecraft 3D, a 3D-printed concept shoe that you can actually run in. Right now.

Although if truth be told you probably won't want to because while the Futurecraft 3D shoes we got to try out earlier this week are undoubtedly an impressive example of what can be done, they don't look the most comfortable running shoes we've ever seen. And ironically, they printed out a size that was too small for me to wear, so I can't conclusively prove or disprove that.

As a proof of concept though, the Futurecraft 3D definitely take us a step closer to that world where we can walk into a running shoe shop and have bespoke running shoes printed for us while we wait.

In the past three years we've seen other innovations that have made that future more realistic. The advent of Adidas Primeknit and Nike FlyKnit, where the uppers are woven as a single piece, have already simplified the manufacture of running shoes.

Foot­scanning technology capable of perfectly mapping your pinkies already exists at the hi­gh-tech labs of Adidas and Nike in Herzog and Oregon respectively, as does pressure mapping and detailed gait analysis that picks up how your feet strike the ground. At the same time, Nike ID has long given us a taste for customised running shoes, ­in colour and design at least.

The new Adidas Futurecraft 3D concept is another piece of the puzzle, featuring a unique 3D- printed running shoe midsole which can be tailored to the cushioning needs of your foot. It's all part of Adidas' vision for how we'll buy sports footwear in the future.

"Imagine walking into an Adidas store, running briefly on a treadmill and instantly getting a 3D- printed running shoe – this is the ambition of the Adidas 3D­printed midsole. Creating a flexible, fully breathable carbon copy of the athlete's own footprint, matching exact contours and pressure points, it will set the athlete up for the best running experience. Linked with existing data sourcing and foot scan technologies, it opens unique opportunities for immediate in­store fittings."

"Futurecraft 3D is a prototype and a statement of intent. We have used a one­ of ­its ­kind combination of process and material in an entirely new way,” said Eric Liedtke, Executive Board Member of Adidas AG, responsible for Global Brands. "Our 3D­printed midsole not only allows us to make a great running shoe, but also to use performance data to drive truly bespoke experiences, meeting the needs of any athlete."

Many miles will be run before we're in that brave new world, but it is coming. This made-­to-­order approach has too many benefits for the consumer and the big manufacturers for it to remain a pipe dream.

For a start, the brands will only need to make the shoes they actually sell. That's good news for the bottom line, cutting wastage cost from unsold products. It's also great for the environment, another big agenda item for the increasingly eco­conscious mega­brands.

Then there's brand loyalty. Having your footprint logged with Adidas or Nike presents another opportunity to breed even stronger brand affiliations. Moving between Adidas and Nike wouldn't quite be as annoying as shifting bank accounts but we are creatures of habit and if you've got a bespoke foot scan sorted with one company, why bother getting another done?

That, of course, raises the question of who would own the rights to your scan? And what would stop you printing your own shoes at home? Let's hope we're not heading for a new world of DRM nightmares…

Kieran Alger
Freelance writer

Kieran is a freelance writer and editor working in the space where health, fitness, sports and technology collide. He covers everything from virtual reality and smart scales to the latest wearable health trackers. Kieran is also a borderline-obsessed runner and is passionate about using the latest technology to hack his health in search of marginal gains.