What is the 3D Shoe Bird Project?

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12.28.18
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Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs has worked in the fashion industry for more than 20 years. So far she’s talked about some of the issues surrounding footwear. Here she talks about her new project, the 3D Shoe Bird Project.

Last year, I was part of an independent project that produced the Liverbird shoe. A conceptual idea where we worked with Emma Rogers’ sculpture of the iconic liver bird, a group of students and the LJMU Fablab and hacked it onto a shoe and 3D printed it.

After the success of this, I really wanted to focus on creating a wearable 3D printed shoe and applied for a small innovation grant from OpenMaker, an EU fund that is about developing relationships between makers and manufacturers. 

My plan is to develop a process whereby artists, designers and makers can realise and iterate footwear prototypes that can be commercialised. This will be done through a process of 3D printing and create small scale production runs which avoid expensive start-up costs and the high levels of financial investment and failures seen by many makers and manufacturers in this highly competitive sector.

Although a range of shoe components can now be digitally printed, they’re very time consuming, mimic the traditional mass manufacturing processes and are not cost effective. The opportunity to produce short runs in different materials places the whole process in the hands of designers.  They can link directly with customers in what is otherwise a highly exclusive and unsustainable sector in which both designers and labourers are often exploited for excessive commercial profits. Additionally these long supply chains in which components are transported globally are taking a huge toll on the environment.

This project introduced me to the Eco-Innovatory team, based in the Faculty of Engineering and Technology in LJMU and I have been very lucky to meet some likeminded people who helped me with the initial prototype stage to create a wearable sole and upper. It’s just a very simple slide, but it is 3D printed – and, from here, we could do anything: create modular interchangeable components and customise colour, style and materials, eliminating the need for sizes and stock. We can send a file across the world and print locally – with the potential to create valuable IP. Future exporting could be about IP not the physical product, reducing not just wasted materials costs, but also the impact of transportation. The physical product can be made in the market it serves. 

There are still challenges – the cost and time of doing an individual print is still problematic.  Filaments and materials are also not fully developed yet, but as a prototype and a starting point to create a customised shoe we’re getting there. It is possible to create an injection mould for limited and smaller size runs – it’s a start. 

What I have found in doing this and talking about it is – innovation comes when you put your thoughts out there and allow people to dream and collaborate together.

I’m looking for materials that can decompose once they’ve been submerged and discarded in salt water for, say, six months. Or material that omits mosquito repellent when you walk on it, to combat malaria. I was fortunate to visit the nanotechnology centre CITEVE in Portugal a couple of weeks ago and saw they were adding sensors into existing shoes for people with dementia. 

It’s about developing footwear that serves a purpose beyond an aesthetic satisfaction or comfort fit once you have bought it. I firmly believe that we are moving away from the marketing age to a new maker age – and it will be driven by technology.

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Join us to create a collective of designers, artists, digital and tech people who’re keen to use 3D printing in your work at an early or prototype stage, which could lead to small scale commercial development of a footwear range.

@businessofshoes  @3dshoebirdproject

Fiona Armstrong-Gibbs is a fashion lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. Her sustainable shoe project is backed by the EU-backed OpenMaker project, supporting digital manufacturing innovation in Italy, Slovakia, Spain and the UK.