Back in 2015, Voxel8 showed off a desktop 3D printer capable of printing electronic circuits into thermoplastic parts. Although they continued to make announcements, they went silent for a while after that. It wasn’t until this past October that Voxel8 announced having created a system for 3D printing shoe uppers. To help the company with its development of a machine that can 3D print 350,000 pairs of shoe uppers a year, DSM Venturing along with the venture arm of HP Inc. has invested in them. 3D printing footwear components has been an active area for some time. Nearly every major shoe brand is working to 3D print midsoles. Insoles have also become a big area of interest. What has become difficult is 3D printing the actual uppers of the shoes, where all of the appeal comes from. CEO of Voxel8, Travis Busbee, thinks his company can succeed where others have been unable to.
Shoe uppers are made using a labor and material-intensive process that includes die cutting, tooling, stitching, fishing, gluing and assembling components. Voxel8 has developed a method for automating and streamlining the fabrication of uppers via 3D printing. Using a multi-input active mixing printhead, Voxel8’s Active Lab Digital Fabrication System is capable of either spraying or extruding liquid polyurethane elastomers onto a textile that then solidify as the elastomer reacts. This gives structure to the fabric, allowing it to become a three-dimensional cloth.