Cobbler Technologies' 3D shoe printer is bringing shoe manufacturing back to Maine
Lewis and Katon originally met while studying Mechanical Engineering at the University of Maine, where their main area of interest was shock-absorbing materials that could help traumatic brain injury reduction in hospital environments. However, despite their desire to 3D print these materials, the technology just wasn’t at the level they required. “We could 3D print prototypes, we could 3D print semi-functional materials, but when it came to composite layering, it just wasn’t available in the industry, so we set out to fill that need,” Lewis and Katon told 3Ders.org in a phone interview.
They ended up developing their own 3D printer that could 3D print multiple materials in a single build and even control which material would go into each layer—surpassing the precision offered by their existing Objet 3D printer or other industrial multi-material machines on the market. “It’s complete freedom of design unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” said Katon.
Realizing they had something quite powerful in their hands, Lewis and Katon began to think…with their feet. “We said, what is the biggest market that we could possibly go into with this type of material? And the answer was right under our feet. We started looking at the running shoe market, and they really strive for full shock absorption and rebound.”
They developed a running shoe that was entirely 3D printed from the midsole down to the tread. In lab tests with their multi-material 3D printer, what is now known as Cobbler Technologies found that not only were they were able to achieve better shock absorption and rebound properties than any existing running shoe on the market today, they were able to do so with a 20% reduction in overall thickness. Their 3D shoe printer is perhaps the first ever that was designed specifically for manufacturing (not prototyping) running shoes. Not only that, but it can produce 20,000 shoes in a machine the size of an oven. At this point, the giddiness must have set in.
Lewis and Katon signed up for the Scratchpad Accelerator, a seed program that connects new startups with the mentorship, funding, and guidance they need to make it on the market. “Scratchpad was absolutely instrumental to our growth over the last several months,” said Katon. “We connected with some great mentors from across North America…individuals who had been serial entrepreneurs with companies that grew to over a billion dollars in revenue a year. Having that mentorship has just been incredible.”
It was also through Scratchpad that Lewis and Katon were granted the opportunity to work with experienced shoe manufacturers to see what they were doing right and wrong, and to be a part of high-profile discussions regarding potential partnerships within the 3D printed shoe industry. Currently, they are targeting the high-end athletic market, and, rather than merely creating a value-added product such as a 3D printed insole that customers would have to buy separately, they plan to integrate their 3D printed, branded component directly into designer shoe models in order to provide consumers with ready-to-wear, high performance runners.
When I asked them about what they thought of all of the big-name shoe companies that have recently announced their entry to the 3D printed shoe market, including Nike, Adidas and New Balance, they said that rather than being intimidated, they welcomed the news with open arms: “I actually really come it because it shows that this technology is viable for this industry. And the market is so big that anybody who jumps into it will just move the technology more to the mainstream,” said Katon.
“Several large shoe manufacturers are trying to research how to 3D print shoes, some of them are also out looking for partnerships, and we’ve been fortunate enough to be in on some of those discussions. But really, you know, whether or not we’re in the game with someone else, we’re just excited to see so much activity being brought into this industry.”
Another major advantage of 3D printing is that they are able to keep almost all of their manufacturing in Maine. The state was once home to a thriving shoe manufacturing industry, at one time employing thousands of workers. With big names such as New Balance and LL Bean moving back in, Maine’s manufacturing scene is once again in the hotspot, and Cobbler Technologies is both proud and excited to be a part of it. “Right now everything is done in Maine, and we do really love the heritage over here…at some point we will branch out a little bit, but we will always have a presence here.” As an added bonus, the elimination of costs associated with overseas manufacturing and shipping will be passed right on to consumers.
To celebrate their graduation from the Scratchpad Accelerator Program today, December 11th (check out their Demo Day Livestream here), Cobbler Technologies is launching a brand new website, and has said that their first product will be hitting the market as early as Q2 2016. In the meantime, L&K Manufacturing will continue to offer 3D printing and prototyping services to local businesses, including existing clients in the aerospace industry.
The 3D printed shoe industry is by far one of the biggest potential consumer markets for 3D printing technology right now, and Cobbler Technologies is not only ahead of the curve, it’s unique 3D shoe printer could play a major role in defining it. We’re certainly excited to see what this Made-in-Maine startup will offer in the near future.