How Footwear Companies Can Take Advantage of 3D Printing Tech

How Footwear Companies Can Take Advantage of 3D Printing Tech

3D Printing: Data, Data Everywhere

How companies can take advantage of advanced data management capabilities to apply bold, new manufacturing techniques.

Press a button and a pair of shoes that smell like bubble gum emerges, fully formed, from a 3D printer. Sound far-fetched? Tell that to Melissa’s Shoes, a Brazilian footwear company that recently “printed” its first pair of brightly colored, plastic sandals.

Organizations may soon deploy variations of 3D printing technologies to design and build everything from automobile parts to medical devices. “Think about a supertanker. The maintenance department won’t have to stock spare engine parts. If something breaks, they can print another one,” says Mike Brinker, a principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP who leads Deloitte Digital. “Or, it may soon be possible to extrude cement. Engineers could potentially set up huge 3D printers at a construction site to ‘print’ the foundation of a building.”

“This is coming,” says Mark Cotteleer, a director with Deloitte Services LP. “In the next 5 to 10 years, 3D printing technology will proliferate.”

Though the market for 3D printing—also known as additive manufacturing—is currently estimated at just 0.02 percent of global manufacturing output, its potential for lowering manufacturing costs and revitalizing America’s industrial base is vast and largely untapped. Consensus estimates for the market opportunity of additive manufacturing, according to a poll of industry experts by Wohlers Associates in 2011, exceed $21 billion with estimates as high as $170 billion.²

This technology could have a profound effect not only on a company’s design and manufacturing processes, but also on the supportive role that IT will be called upon to play in those processes. “As they begin to engage in additive manufacturing, companies will implement advanced design technologies, along with numerous computing tools to run simulations and to test and track the quality and durability of products,” says Cotteleer. “Vast amounts of data will typically be required to operate these tools and support critical additive manufacturing processes.”

Cotteleer says there is a sizable gap between many companies’ tools and talent, and that which they will need to engage in additive manufacturing. “CIOs will have to make significant investments in manufacturing execution systems, data management, and other technologies required to support an additive manufacturing environment,” he says.

Neck Deep in Data

3D printers use a process similar to that found in inkjet printing (see Figure 1). But instead of depositing ink on a page, they deposit materials such as plastics, polymers, and metals in successive layers to create a physical object.

Source: T Rowe Price: Connections, 3D Printing, May 2012 (graphic from Objet Inc.).

According to Cotteleer, printing is the culmination of a data-heavy design process in which 3D software is used to digitally model a product, and simulation technologies are deployed to qualify, or test, the product materials.

This design process differs depending on the technologies being deployed, the product design, and other factors, but typically it involves two fundamental steps:

Characterizing the product: Much like an office printer translates digital word processing files into printed pages, 3D printers read computer-aided design (CAD) files containing fully-rendered, three-dimensional product models. These models tell the printer how to precisely apply layers of a material in a way that will transform a product design into a tangible product. “Design software creates models that are detailed at the micron level,” explains Cotteleer. “As designers begin to build objects with increasingly complex geometries, they will have to describe them digitally in ever more precise detail. The more detailed the model, the more data is required.” explains Cotteleer. “CIOs and their data management teams will be called upon to maintain increasingly large data sets that can be easily stored and manipulated.”

“Right now, nobody engineers products without CAD files and a version control system,” adds Brinker. “With 3D printing, those version control systems will have to get better because managing all the data is going to get a bit more complicated.”

Qualifying a design through advanced simulation: Materials scientists have spent hundreds of years studying the properties of materials used in the molding, casting, and forging of products. Today, as a result of their efforts and the quality processes they have established, we typically place trust in the functionality and durability of the products we use. We generally believe that the design and manufacturing processes most companies deploy are proven and thorough.

According to Cotteleer, companies engaged in additive manufacturing must similarly validate their products. This may involve extensive use of simulations to demonstrate that products manufactured through new additive processes are as safe, durable, and reliable as those created using more traditional techniques and materials. “Simulation software can make it possible for companies to test new products in a computer-generated environment, subjecting them—virtually—to the stresses they will encounter in the real world,” he says. “This process can help companies understand the strengths and weaknesses of their product designs, and of the materials they are using.”

Because additive manufacturing typically creates products layer by layer, manufacturers will also have the opportunity, and may feel the need, to monitor production in entirely new ways. Closely monitoring products as they are formed could yield terabytes of data. CIOs will need to determine what data is useful and should be maintained, and what should be discarded (and when). The ability to maintain and analyze valuable data may become increasingly important as 3D printing technologies are deployed in the production of engine parts, medical devices, and other items upon which human safety depends.

Cotteleer says that providing and supporting the tools and data required to carry out these simulation, monitoring, and testing processes may be the most important role that CIOs and IT play in additive manufacturing efforts. “The ability of a manufacturer to say ‘This product is what we say it is’ will be critical,” he says.

New Security and Legal Concerns

Imagine that a company has created a revolutionary new piston design using 3D modeling software. To manufacture it using traditional methods, the company would have to invest in molds for casting and machine equipment to drill, shape, and polish the product, and would need highly trained technicians to oversee the production process. In the world of additive manufacturing, industrial cyber criminals can steal the CAD file containing the piston design before anyone knows they have breached the company’s defenses. With the help of a $50,000 3D printer, someone else can begin producing that new piston. “With 3D printing, the capital requirements of counterfeiting will fall dramatically,” says Cotteleer. “One challenge CIOs and their teams will face is finding a new means of identifying their companies’ products. Whether that can be accomplished using a watermark or other identifier, or by designing products in ways that can make them easily identified if counterfeited remains to be seen.”

Yet, says Brinker, many of the intellectual property and security challenges that arise as 3D printing goes mainstream may seem familiar to CIOs. “Right now there is a lot of hype around additive manufacturing and its potential effect on intellectual property, but these concerns aren’t new,” he observes. “When DVD burners became readily available and it became apparent they could be used to copy and transfer large amounts of confidential data, organizations faced the same basic security challenge that they face today with 3D printing.”


As additive manufacturing grows in popularity, it may require even more of CIOs than increased investment in software, data management systems, and security. Says Cotteleer, “CIOs may soon find themselves playing an integral role in manufacturing and design. Companies will be producing products in an entirely different way, one that is heavily reliant on technology and monitoring capabilities that IT can provide.”