I went inside hot shoe brand Brooks' R&D lab where it's rolling out top-secret 3D printed sneakers that promise to fix every runner's flaws
- A detailed biomechanical study by Brooks showed I need a shoe with additional support.
- Next year Brooks will release its first 3D-printed midsole, an infinitely customizable technology.
One of the first next-generation treadmills sits in the second floor R&D lab of Brooks' headquarters in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood. This month, I got to try it out.
Brooks senior research scientist Chris Ertel put a series of sensors on my feet, knees, and hips. Then I did a series of tests on the treadmill, which unlike traditional treadmills measures force, as well as speed. Eight motion-capture cameras recorded my movements as I did a set of exercises that included squats, lunges, descending stairs, walking, and running.
Afterwards, Ertel and his colleagues determined my knees and ankles, pronate, or roll, when I run. They recommended a person with my "Run Signature" wear a shoe with the company's Guardrails technology, which acts sort of like "bumpers on a bowling alley," and keeps the body in better alignment.
The company also offers an online version of the test. It similarly recommended that I buy a shoe with Guardrails.
Next year Brooks will take its Run Signature efforts to the next level, introducing its first running shoe with a 3D printed midsole, making it the latest entrant in the race to capitalize on the promise of the technology, which is infinitely customizable and could be the next big thing.
In 2019, SmarTech predicted footwear will be the biggest consumer market for 3D printing, growing to $5.9 billion by 2029. Eventually, Brooks, like other industry giants, wants to use 3D technology to custom-tune running shoes to each person's unique biomechanical signature.
"We need to embrace what's unique about each person," said Carson Caprara, Brooks vice president of footwear product management and merchandising. "It's our long-term vision to get to your shoe."
'It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when.'
In 2017, Adidas launched its first 3D shoe. It worked with Carbon, a California company that works with a variety of consumer products companies. At the time, 3D printing was fairly limited.
Nobody was making more "than hundreds, maybe like low digit thousands," said Phil DeSimone, part of the CEO's office at Carbon. "When we first started, people told us we were crazy."
New Balance unveiled a 3D-printed shoe in 2019. Nike and Under Armour also have used 3D printing technology.
In the past five years, DeSimone said the technology has matured. He said Carbon now makes millions of pairs of midsoles a year for Adidas. (Adidas North America President Rupert Campbell wore a pair earlier this year when he spoke with Insider.)
Unlike traditional foam midsoles, 3D midsoles are custom-printed and can reflect each person's unique anatomy and biomechanical structure. For instance, Carbon already makes custom football helmets for NFL football players. It also makes bike seats and medical products.
DeSimone said mass customization with 3D technology should be available within the next few years. "It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," he said.
Running-shoe companies, including Brooks, will need to convince consumers the technology is worth the extra cost. An Adidas Ultraboost shoe made with more traditional foam retails around $190, but the company's 3D technology starts at around $200.
"3D shoes have been pretty limited so far in terms of sales," said Matt Powell, senior industry analyst for the NPD Group. "I think we'll see more 3D shoes in the future as an on-the-fly experiment."
Brooks races to be first to perfect the tech
While most running-shoe companies are working on 3D technology, Brooks executives think they can perfect the technology first.
"We are obsessed with the runner and the run," Caprara said, citing the company's R&D investments (the instrumental treadmill I used was one of the first), development of technology like the online gait-analysis, and the focus on more than just the foot and ankle.
Brooks also has provided more than 10,000 pairs of shoes to test runners and collected detailed surveys from more than 38,000 runners in the past five years.
"We have dreamed about the opportunity to put Run Signature to work for runners in a big way," Caprara said. "This technology is the unlock we need to make that happen."
The new 3D shoe, which features a sock-like upper and a sole that looks like a series of spiderwebs, will be released next year. Insider got the first look at the still-unnamed shoe. It's expected to cost a premium, although the company hasn't revealed pricing.
The shoe will eventually be "your" shoe, but not at first. Caprara said the early versions will be somewhat "rudimentary," but as Brooks gathers more data and the technology improves, the options will grow from "three to 300 to 3,000 to 3 million."
Caprara said the shoe will be the start of a 10- to 15-year journey of fine-tuning the technology.
In order to do that, Brooks will continue to gather data on the Run Signature of Brooks customers, both through wearables and through visits with sports doctors and retail partners.
The shoe, he said, "is the Trojan horse that gets us through the door."
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