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Gig Tank company is making 3D shoes from foot selfies
Feetz founders Lucy and Nigel Beard arrived in Chattanooga six days late for the start of Gig Tank, Chattanooga’s summer incubator for startup companies that need the city’s unique gigabit-speed Internet. They did have a pretty good excuse on their tardiness, though. They were busy winning first place in the Founders Showcase, an international startup pitch competition in Silicon Valley. The award was about exposure, networking and prestige. The judges were 10 of Silicon Valley’s top venture capitalists, and the audience was 450 more VCs. This competition’s 120 previous winners over the last five years have gone on to raise more than $130 million in venture funding.
Then they got on a plane for Chattanooga, because both gigabit Internet and old-style manufacturing know-how are key to their plans to become the first company in the world to make custom-fit shoes using 3D printing.
A conventional, factory-made shoe typically has 13 different materials, 65 parts and 350 assembly steps, they explain. The process they have created, though it uses the latest sexy tech tools, is in some ways a hybrid: a digital throwback to the pre-industrial era’s handmade shoes.“You could get a better fitting pair of shoes a couple hundred years ago, and now we’ve come through this mass manufacturing environment, where we’re settling for something we use every single day that doesn’t actually meet our needs,” says Nigel. With Feetz, on the other hand, “We’re digital cobblers making digital lasts.”
In shoemaking, a “last” is a foot-shaped form that shoes are molded around. In bygone days a craftsman would make a one-of-a kind pair of shoes by beginning with a last for your size 9 foot and tailoring it to your unique measurements. Manufactured shoes assume that every size 9 is the same. Except that every manufacturer and every shoe style might be a little different. And every foot is—literally—as unique as a fingerprint. The typical result is the seemingly never-ending quest for a shoe that fits right.
Which is exactly where the idea for Feetz began seven months ago. Frustrated by a shoe shopping trip where fit, comfort and the right color were never present in the same pair of shoes, Lucy Beard went next door to Starbucks, where she could get “87,000 different combinations of coffee from three little machines...and I just went ‘I wonder why you can't do that with shoes.’”
The Beards have deep software backgrounds in Silicon Valley—Lucy ran social media for Zinga, doing sentiment analysis of 200 million game players; with a chemistry background in microfluidics and nanofluidics, Nigel ran biotech R&D labs—but knew nothing about making tangible things.
In seven months, working at a maker space and a pre-business accelerator, they have developed their core software, formulated a business plan and created a handful of prototypes. Now they are aiming to develop these beginnings into a scalable system that can produce 1,000 pairs of 3D printed shoes every month. To do that, they need both the gig and traditional manufacturing skills.
For example, they show me a 3D printed shoe that is close to being wearable. It needs to lose some rough edges left over from printing—they call it “robot fuzz”—but it also needs a textile lining, which is a more traditional manufacturing process.
“The resources in Chattanooga are teaching us what we need to ask for,” says Nigel, “what type of analytical measurements we can impose on vendors and suppliers, so that we know even though we’re printing somebody a unique shoe, the materials and the methods in which we produce that are going to be reproducible.”
A customer will download a mobile app, use it to take photos or videos of their feet and send them to Feetz. The company will use those files to create a 3D model of the user’s foot—the digital last—and create the shoe itself as a 3D software “mesh” around the last. Two or three parts for each shoe will be printed, assembled and the pair shipped to the customer.
The buyer doesn’t need gigabit Internet, but for the manufacturer it’s essential. Gigabit Internet means the Beards can control all aspects of their digital production facility as easily as a traditional company operates an analog factory. They think of it tentatively as “farm to table” production.
“We have to come up with a name for it,” says Lucy. “Foot to mouse?”
The name might not fit as precisely as the shoes will, but “farm to table”-style of food production is a great model for how they want to make shoes.
“We want local manufacturing in a short distribution radius,” says Nigel. “Costs are much lower. The speed, the turnaround time in which you can get those goods to those individuals completely drops through the floor.”
As more cities roll out gigabit Internet, the Beards plan a distributed network of production facilities, but until that happens Chattanooga is the only possible location for their first factory: a cross between a pre-industrial cobbler shop, an industrial shoe factory and a software firm.