3D printing puts small-scale shoe-designers back into game

14 February 2013
By Abi Grogan
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Split Heels - 3D printed shoes

Biodegradable collection Split Heels are 100% recyclable.

Bryan Oknyansky is a trained architect who transitioned over to the world of shoe-making

Bryan Oknyansky is a trained architect who transitioned over to the world of shoe-making

Brian uses a 3D printer to manufacture his high heels

Brian uses a 3D printer to manufacture his high heels

E&T interviews a trained architect who transitioned into the field of shoe design two years ago, who believes 3D printing will drive innovation in the industry by opening it up to small-scale designers.

3D printing is cropping up in every industry within often questionable applications. Cakes, scans of unborn foetuses and even body parts were squeezed out of 3D printers at trade shows such as the 3D Printshow in London last year. But for one industry that has been utilising 3D printing for decades, the technology has begun to spawn projects that could provide a well-needed visual platform for small-scale designers and manufacturers.

Much like automotive manufacturers who have used 3D printing to rapid prototype components for decades, big players in the fashion industry have taken advantage of this technology to prototype new models of footwear before wide scale manufacturing takes place to fill demand. This has meant that small-scale footwear designers are often priced out of the market; if they are unable to produce even a sample selection of their proposed collection they are unlikely to receive exposure at the prestigious fashion weeks across the globe, meaning wide-scale manufacture of their projects was an unobtainable ambition, until now.

Bryan Oknyansky is an architect-cum-shoe-designer who made the transition from cities to shoes two years ago when he realised shoe-design would allow him to experiment with new technologies and materials whilst furthering his architect career. His avant-garde designs of sky-high heels merge cutting edge digital design and manufacturing technologies and have allowed him to produce two collections, one in metal and one in biodegradable plastic. He uses a 3D printer loaned to him, by partner 3D Systems to produce small batches of PLA-printed heels that can be finger-print tailored to the wearer’s foot, eradicating fit-related accidents and injuries. He says that the falling prices of 3D printers will open up the industry to innovative new designers who were not previously able to showcase their designs in the flesh.

How has your training in architecture prepared you for design and manufacturing?

I don’t call it a career change, I call it a bifurcation of the career trajectory. The dictionary defines architects as people who build things, but an architect is a problem solver, whether it be economically, socially or politically. We deal with budgets, use and functionality and are not just limited to art, we want to build things that are functional for the people that use them. Whether it’s a building, or a shoe or a piece of furniture, the initial design process is the same. I have an idea which develops into a sketch, and if I decide 3D printing is the best manufacturing format to use, then I need to take into account the limitations of that medium.

What is the difference between printing components and shoes?

Well the biggest difference is budget, public safety and also legislation. It takes far less time to get a product to market. 3D printing has been used by the fashion industry for years in the same way that the automotive industry has used it – for rapid prototyping. But what I do differently is use it for the manufacture of a final product. There’s no reason why it can’t be used for rapid manufacturing.

Why 3D printing?

3D printing technology is a blanket term for a lot of different kinds of machines. I use the limitations of this technology to influence my designs which means the design often can’t aesthetically be represented an infinite amount of ways. But this is not necessarily a stumbling block. If the machine I am using has limitations, I push against those to make the machine function in a way that it is not naturally good at and achieve what I initially intended. This creates anomalies in the material that are an interesting development in regards to the finish of the heel,

Which grade of printer do you use?

I’d say 3D printers fall into three broad categories. I use the lowest-end type which comes in at about £2,000 which is more suitable for the lab and is envisioned as the 3D printer that everyone will have in their homes. Then there is a bracket of around £20,000, and then £200,000 and above. Every time you jump up a price bracket you get a higher resolution, with a deeper level of complexity, for example objects within objects and overhanging elements.

How does the grade of printing affect your designs?

I use high-quality a lower end machine provided by my partner 3D systems called Bits From Bytes, which has its benefits and its drawbacks. For example, I can’t use it to print overhanging elements over 40 degrees at the vertical, such as a cantilever, without support material which increases my print time by about five fold. My machine layers plastic, so it’s limited by gravity, but more expensive machines can dry your design out from a vat of resin and cure it with light meaning it’s suspended in fluid, or print an even layer of power which is corrected with lasers meaning a complex geometry can be achieved.

What are the benefits of your machine?

There are trade-offs for using a higher grade of printer. Lower end-printers can print in a range of colours which suits me as a shoe designer as it eradicates a post-production process. I can open up my product to buyers to bespoke in their own colours rather than me having to decide which colours to give them. When you upgrade, there is only plain white available.

Does 3D printing allow you to makes shoes more ergo dynamic?

Definitely. With a use of 3D scanning I could take a scan of your foot and make a fingerprint shoe for you. Neither technology is new, but neither is really in mainstream consciousness. Also, when I first started out making shoes, some of the tool I needed to produce initial models were too expensive, like a lathe, so I printed them myself.

How has the technology influenced the progress of your collections?

My initial collection, Heavy Metal, utilised a high end 3D printer, mostly used by aerospace and medical industries. This collection was designed to be printed in metal, specifically titanium alloy, and was extraordinarily expensive. My next step with this collection is to find a market for it and make it economically viable. Now I am printing my latest range called Split Heels in biodegradable material.

Tell us more about your new biodegradable range, which is made from a material that is derived from renewable resources, such as corn starch, tapioca roots, starch or sugarcane.

My new range is made from polylactic plastic (PLA) and is entirely recyclable. It doesn’t smell when you print with it and it’s not as harmful to the environment as petrol-based plastics.

How will 3D printing change the shoe industry?

As far as the manufacturing industry goes, you won’t need the same kind of investment to set up shop on a small scale. In the traditional model of manufacturing you need a lot of investment after the initial design has been secured to set up a manufacturing supply chain, which is out of reach for the young entrepreneur. 3D printing allows people like me another way to bring a brand or product to market. 3D printing offers a start without upfront investment.

How is the fashion industry responding to 3D printing products?

It’s very encouraging. There’s a very distinct finish created by the machine that I’m using that looks almost like a vinyl record. This is due to the resolution – I can do three layer of thickness, 0.5mm, 0.25mm, 0.125mm. I use 0.5mm, the lowest resolution, to print as it saves time and my clients prefer the saturated, shiny vinyl-record finish, it creates a nice object that responds to light in different ways. The edgier fashion becomes, the more fashion houses are interested in products that have unique qualities and finishes and references to other cultural phenomena and history.

Which lies ahead for 3D printing and the fashion industry?

There are some machines that can print rigid and semi-rigid printing which is interesting for the shoe design industry. The textile industry has been interested in this area for around five years now and has launched specific studies. But the fashion industry as a whole has only been interested for around three years, with a big push last summer marking its acceptance.

What’s next for you?

What’s next is working out how to try and communicate my niche in this industry, especially with regard to 3D printing. It’s still a relatively new thing. Last summer, you’d be on the metro seeing people around you reading about 3D printing in the Evening Standard and that’s when it seemed like 3D printing had finally arrived.

Further information

Bryan Oknyansky web site

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