For Nike it was Air. For Adidas it was Boost. And now, for Reebok, it’s liquid.
Reebok just unveiled its latest footwear innovation, a process of assembling sole technology by using 3D printing to create dynamic outsoles that are as responsive as they are shapely.
Here’s how the process works: A viscous liquid is piped onto a flat surface, creating something of a flexible, rubberized sculpture that is applied to the sole of a shoe, wrapping from the bottom up to the upper and then into the lacing system to create a flexible exterior cage that moves with the wearer with every step, changing shape as needed.
In some ways, this is unprecedented. Nike and Adidas have publicly played with making shoes in new ways, but Reebok has officially taken the lead in 3D printing with this technology, which has been dubbed “3D drawing.” The entire process has been perfected as a part of the launch of Reebok’s “Liquid Factory” banner, under the auspices of which a new Rhode Island-based factory is set to open.
“Footwear manufacturing hasn’t dramatically changed over the last 30 years,” explains Bill McInnis, Head of Future at Reebok (coolest department name ever), who happens to be a former NASA engineer. “Every shoe, from every brand, is created using molds—an expensive, time-consuming process. With Liquid Factory, we wanted to fundamentally change the way that shoes are made, creating a new method to manufacture shoes without molds. This opens up brand new possibilities both for what we can create, and the speed with which we can create it.”
If this news sounds familiar, it should. Adidas just announced its own Speedfactory, set to open in Georgia in 2017. That came after Nike committed to bringing 10,000 jobs to U.S. shores in the next decade. We speculated that Adidas’ movement on this issue might put pressure on Nike to expedite the process, but already Reebok has taken the initiative, making sneaker production a more homegrown process. If creating American manufacturing jobs becomes the next big trend in footwear, that’s something we can really get behind.
“With this new process, we were able to program robots to create the entire shoe outsole, without molds, by drawing in layers with a high-energy liquid material to create the first ever energy-return outsole, which performs dramatically better than a typical rubber outsole,” McInnis says. “The all new Liquid Factory process is also used to create a unique fit system that stretches and molds around the foot, providing a three-dimensional fit.”
The Liquid Speed is just the first sneaker that Reebok has developed to use this technology—and we can expect the brand to take it further. There has never been a more exciting time in footwear than right now. The latest sneaker boom has forced companies to search out entirely novel ways to create and manufacture shoes, pushing the boundaries first of what was expected and now of what’s (arguably) acceptable.
If you told hardcore sneaker aficionados four years ago that they’d been running on 3D-printed outsoles from Reebok, they wouldn’t bother responding. But while we were looking somewhere else, Reebok quietly created the most exciting advancement in sneaker technology this year. This is why you’ve got to stay paying attention.
Reebok’s Rhode Island Liquid Factory is set to open early next year, but if the shoes shown in Reebok’s video are your jam, there’s no need to wait that long: The Liquid Speed is available now. There are only 300 pairs of the shoe available, and they’re live now through reebok.com and FinishLine.
Act fast. Each pair is individually numbered, tagged, and boxed for the record.