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MIT's experimental 3D printed shoe can snap into custom shapes and designs

A handful of sports brands have started 3D printing sneakers, but MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab is already taking the idea a step further. By using a newly-developed textile technology, the group has developed the Minimal Shoe: a sneaker that’s custom printed for every wearer’s unique pair of feet. The process behind the Minimal Shoe is key, since it allows designers to stretch and print materials into a flat textile that snaps into any custom shape when cut loose from its frame.

The idea for the Minimal Shoe came about when the Self-Assembly Lab team was invited to design a unique footwear technology display for the London Design Museum’s “Life on Foot” exhibition. “Imagine using active materials to produce one-size-fits-all shoes, adaptive fit, and self-forming manufacturing processes. This technique would radically transform the production of footwear forever,” the group said in a statement. The Self-Assembly Lab has high hopes for the still developing technology. The 3D printing process behind the form of the Minimal Shoe is just one example of the ways that “active” materials simplify complicated design procedures. Research into these kinds of programmable materials could also be applied to furniture design, product manufacturing, and shipping.

Related: Nike was just granted a key patent for 3D printed shoe technology

To create the Minimal Shoe, hard lines of plastic are 3D printed onto a stretched textile canvas. Since each line represents a different part of the shoe, different lines are printed with varying levels of thickness and flexibility. As soon as the textile is cut free from the original canvas-style stretching, the placement of the 3D printed lines causes the textile to snap to whatever shape has been arranged in the custom shoe design. The precision of this 3D printing process would allow manufacturers to specify fit and form to any individual wearer, while the flexibility of the stretchy textile that makes up the shoe itself would allow for a more generic shoe that’s form-fitting enough to conform to a wide variety of foot shapes.

Self-Assembly Lab researchers say they are open to both of these application-focused possibilities, and have announced that their developments with this kind of “active” textile technology have earned the attention of an unidentified “large sportswear company”. Big names like Nike and Adidas have already announced their plans for widespread 3D-printed sneaker manufacturing, so the playing field is narrowing as competition sparks the race for innovation.