Touring Flowbuilt, the First Custom Shoe Factory
And what it could mean for the future of footwear
Within five minutes of entering the Flowbuilt factory, north of Bellingham, Washington, I’m barefoot and standing on what looks like a copy machine. The blue light of a laser beam glides over my toes, and I take a couple steps across a spongy pad that measures pressure. Seconds later, I’m staring at a 3D rendering of my feet, with their bone spurs, flat arches, and busted knuckles, on the screen of a computer program called FitStation.
Right now, the FitStation setup—which is in 26 running stores across the country—can use that rendering to recommend existing shoes for me, as well as 3D-print custom $150 Superfeet insoles. In the future, once you’ve had your feet scanned, you’ll be able to load your data into the program and get your own version of the Brooks Genesys, which will be the first and (so far) only customized running shoe available in the United States. FitStation takes your foot shape, gait, and stance into account to shape the insole and determine the midsole’s stiffness. And Brooks is exploring options for making the shoes right here at Flowbuilt.
It’s part of a bigger push toward individualization, in footwear and beyond, enabled by technology and spurred by consumer preference and retailers’ efforts to revamp their offerings in the face of the shift to online shopping. Your feet are different from anyone else’s—and they’re often different from one another. If you’re an athlete who spends a lot of time on your feet, a problem with structure or support can carry all the way through your body. “Seventy-five percent of people have foot problems, but only 10 percent of them do anything about it,” says Eric Hayes, CMO of Superfeet, Flowbuilt’s parent company. “FitStation is a tool to avoid foot pain.”
Sports medicine biomechanist Jenny Sanders says podiatrists have been looking at 3D-printing custom footwear for years, because it can help with health and performance, but up until now, the technology hasn’t been good enough to make it viable. The idea behind Flowbuilt is that you won’t have to be Jordan or Jornet to get a shoe based on your unique biomechanics. Carson Caprara, director of global footwear product line management at Brooks, says the company started scanning runners’ strides and foot shape to get them into appropriate shoes in 2016. Brooks thinks custom shoes are the next step on that path. “Our research led us to believe the answer to enhancing comfort and improving performance is not to fix a runner’s flaws but to work with the natural motion path of his or her joints,” Caprara says.
Currently, 25 percent of shoes bought online are physically customized through programs like Rbkcustom and NikeID, which let customers change graphics and colors, and a recent global footwear market report says personalization is one of the biggest coming trends in shoes. This spring, Salomon announced the Me:sh custom shoe, available in Europe and eventually the United States, which allows customers to design their own shoe by choosing variables like drop height and cushioning after their feet have been scanned during a quick run on a treadmill. The upper is also heat-molded to fit their foot.
Custom orthotics have been around since the 1960s, but you could only get them at a doctor’s office with a prescription. Hayes says bringing customization to retail is part of a historical curve that started after World War II, when mass production became common in shoes and apparel. Suddenly, you were pigeonholed as a size ten foot or a medium shirt, and for the most part, that standardization has endured. But as consumers have become accustomed to having so many more options thanks to the internet, they’re leaning toward ways to differentiate themselves. “We have higher expectations now,” Hayes says. “Curation is a thing. Self-branding is a thing. Everything is going to be custom.”
Now the technology needed to design and build a shoe has become much better and significantly cheaper. “The shoe is only going to be as good as the scanning method,” Sanders says. “Up till now, it’s been lame, and there hasn’t been a cost-efficient option.” It’s not just the printing technology that makes it work. Flowbuilt is a collaboration between HP, which designed the FitStation software and 3D printer; Superfeet, which makes the insoles; a medical device company called RSscan that builds the pad and hardware necessary to collect the data; and DESMA, which makes the machines that form the polyurethane soles and attach the uppers.
Once the model of my feet is made, we move into the back of the Flowbuilt building, where an HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer is laying out foam and carbon caps. Those caps, which give insoles their shape and stiffness, are the heart of custom shoes, because they match uneven arches or can be made in two different sizes and shapes. In addition to mimicking the physical shape of your foot, they can be designed for your gait, your pressure patterns—like the way you roll off your big toes, which Flowbuilt calls the propulsion index—and what you’re doing in any given pair of shoes.
Hayes refers to Flowbuilt as Switzerland. He says it’s neutral ground and an open platform that any shoe brand can use. In addition to molding soles, Superfeet has the potential to customize and knit the upper and is looking at how to 3D-print fabric. No company has decided to do that yet, but Superfeet is in talks with six other shoe brands in addition to Brooks. At some point, every part of the shoe could be custom. “The main value would be in the insole. That’s what you’re propelling off of, but it would be great to have a more form fitting upper,” Sanders says.
Out on the factory floor, the DESMA machine is pumping out shoes, filling molds with liquid polyurethane to make outsoles, which are then bonded to sock-like uppers. It’s the only commercially available multisection injection machine in the United States, and it can finish one pair every 36 seconds. The 43,000-square-foot building is currently echoey and empty, and Flowbuilt is currently in prototype mode for the Brooks shoes. But Hayes says they’ll ultimately be able to produce 1.8 million pairs of shoes a year.
I came away with a pair of those custom insoles. They feel good in my shoes, but I haven’t noticed any marked difference over a short period of time. Flowbuilt has space and the ability to scale, but the platform is still largely unproven. “The most important component is how many data points they can capture,” Sanders says.
Hayes agrees that this is only the beginning—the proof of concept will take time. But he’s convinced that custom shoes are the future given how quickly consumers adopted custom insoles: “Once you bang out 500 miles in those shoes, your feet can tell.”