At Nike’s Innovation Kitchen in Beaverton, Oregon, a top-secret team of engineers and designers are reinventing the way we play sports. They're recycling plastic bottles to make uniforms; they're dyeing fabric with carbon dioxide instead of water; and as you’ll see in the video above, they’ve even engineered a way to turn a bracelet into a portable health clinic.

“They’re taking what they’re doing with superior athletes and bringing it to the public,” said Barrington of the Fuel Band technology. “It’s like having a scientist on your wrist.”

If you think that's cool, imagine if you could print your own shoe.

Seriously. What if instead of going to the store to buy a pair of shoes, you could customize a shoe online, pay for an access code, and then produce your own shoe at home on a 3-D printer? That future might not be so far off.

Earlier this year, Barrington sat down with Harleigh Doremus, a mechanical engineer in Nike’s research and prototyping department, to learn more about this amazing new technology. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation:

Photo by Tahria Sheather
All photos by Tahria Sheather

BARRINGTON: I can't believe this. I’m holding a 3D-printed shoe.
Harleigh: Yes, this is a 3D-printed Air Max prototype. One material. One color. We have a whole range of technologies: stuff that can do color, soft material, hard material, rubber material. We can print it all.

What is 3D printing?
If you look closely on the shoe, you can see little layer lines. 3D-printing is a process of taking material and adding it layer by layer to create an actual three-dimensional shape. You build a design file in the computer and then you send it to the printer. The first layer looks like nothing. Then you come back in a couple hours and see it grow a little bit. We print everything overnight so that when we’re not working, the machines are working for us.

How do the machines work?
Imagine a bed of powder, thermal plastic ground up into a really fine powder. A laser melts it and builds the form layer by layer. So it goes from a solid powder to a melted liquid plastic and then cools to a solid again.

How many machines does it take to print this shoe?
There’s one machine for each type of material.

Is there anything that you’ve printed that hasn’t worked?
We’re in the innovation space. If we’ve got an idea for a shoe, we can print them and see if it’s going to work. 3D printing gives us the option to fail really quickly. But when you fail really quickly, you can recover really quickly.

This is going to change your industry. It’s like when the computer first came out and everyone didn’t have a computer and a whole industry was created around it. In the distant future, kids will be able to print their own shoes in a Nike store or maybe even at home.
That’s the idea. Take what you have, customize it—your size, your fit—and then print it. It’s a little ways in the future, but the mindset is there. It’ll be fun to see how that evolves over the next decade.

What does 3D printing allow you to do that you couldn’t do before?
We have all these digital programs on our computers where we can make really cool shapes and designs. Then we can take those and print them. It’s stuff you wouldn’t be able to produce any other way unless you spent weeks or months molding and painting them by hand.

So it saves you time?
Exactly, we cut out a whole area in the sample creation process, where we can go right from digital designers and modelers to production. We can speed that up by an insane amount of time. It increased the quality of the product too because in a couple weeks we can fit in lots of design iterations.

How close are you to 3D printing a shirt?
We’ve talked about it. It’s out a ways, but I have confidence it will happen.

What type of skills do you need to work in Nike’s Innovation Kitchen?
Problem solving. You’re taking math and physics and chemistry and using them to solve problems whether it’s fixing a machine that’s broken or making a new material that’s going to bond well to something else. Imagination is huge. Anything you can imagine, you can design on the computer. And now, anything you can design on the computer, you can print.

What about coding?
We’re using digital tools a lot more now at Nike. It’s something called generative modeling, which is using numbers to build shapes and design parts, which we print.

What’s the next step?
That’s the next question in this whole industry. We got these really nice parts we can print, but how do you make them to add performance to the actual product? The next step would be how do you make this feel more like a real shoe—a real airbag, a real foam, a real synthetic?

Wow, you can see into the future.
That’s why I got into engineering.

Photo by Tahria Sheather

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