Computational design is the hottest phrase in manufacturing and 3D printing at the moment.
It’s changing the way people make all kinds of goods, and Nike used it to design and manufacture its new Vaporfly Elite FlyPrint shoe, which it’s announcing today.
The shoe is a specialized edition of its Zoom Vaporfly Elite 4%, which was used by elite runner Eliud Kipchoge during Nike’s Breaking2 event, which resulted in the fastest marathon ever run.
The special sauce in this edition is the FlyPrint upper, which is printed on the fly by a specially customized 3D printer out of a proprietary Nike polymer.
The material is printed out in a pattern specifically designed for a given athlete’s needs and attached to the much hyped Zoom X foam midsole from the 4% model.
The process, which Nike is calling FlyPrint, has some similarities to Nike’s other famous ‘fly’ process, FlyKnit, hence the name. The printing process, says Chen, is a lot like painting the material.
The uppers look a lot like a regular butterfly upper, with the same kind of flexibility you’re used to seeing from fabric or other polymer-based upper materials. This is not a hard-shell 3D-printed material, it’s a fabric of sorts.
This is reinforced by the fact that several components of the shoe are still made of FlyKnit including the tongue and collar. Those parts are so similar in chemical composition that there is no glue needed to attach them.
Instead, the FlyPrint material is bonded seamlessly with the FlyKnit, making for a one-piece design that is stronger and lighter.
The process of computer aided design in consumer products has a long history — but computational design is an evolution of this concept and has begun to gain steam lately with production-ready 3D-printing processes like Carbon’s
Carbon’s M-series digital light synthesis printers and Desktop Metal’s Production System.
The guiding force behind computational design is that you feed parameters and physical properties into a model — basically limitations and desired outcomes — and get designs that would either be impossible or incredibly time consuming for humans to produce.
In the case of the new FlyPrint upper, the constraints are the properties of the material and the forces that Kipchoge’s feet were exerting on that material.
With that data, along with the chemical composition of the polymer, a computational model allowed Nike to tweak the design for support, flexibility, reinforcement or relaxation on a much more granular level than they could ever accomplish with FlyKnit.
Nike is using an established 3D printing process called fused deposition modeling, basically painting shapes onto a surface with production-ready TPU materials.
Neither will say what printers Nike is using but note the company’s history in ‘hacking’ manufacturing tools to get the job done. As an industry note, Stratasys is one of the more established players in FDM printing.
Computational design and production ready 3D printing are changing footwear as we speak. Adidas and Carbon are focusing on the midsole in fashion and basketball, Nike is reinventing the upper for elite runners.
But the real gem here might not be the speed or customization — both important advancements.
The Vaporfly Elite FlyPrint is a product for elite runners only, and a small amount of them will be available at an event in London soon, as well as on the feet of Kipchoge and other Nike runners.
But there is an epochal shift in the way shoes (and other products) are made coming, and this is one of the harbingers of that shift. Pay attention.
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Pass it on: Popular Science