In today’s virtual world, stepping outside to take a breather and immerse oneself in nature is often a much-needed break from computers and the fluorescent lights of an office. That sort of immersion is enhanced for many people by taking a walk — and, increasingly, doing so while wearing footwear created with advanced technologies including immersive computing.
During the HP Global Innovation Summit earlier this month in Barcelona, after having heard more from HP and its partners working with the FitStation platform announced last summer, I appreciated the opportunity to sit down with Josh St. John, Head of Product, Immersive Computing at HP, and Eric Hayes, Chief Marketing Officer, Superfeet to hear more about progress in personalized footwear.
“We’ve seen progress made on 3D printing for lasts and molds,” Hayes told me, touching as well on the Flowbuilt facility announced shortly before our conversation. “That’s the catcher of the information that turns information from digital to physical. We have Multi Jet Fusion there and more; the intent of Flowbuilt is to make the products that FitStation uses. We use MJF for 3D printing of lasts, there’s the ability to adapt the shape of the shoe or insole to your foot.
“The magic of FitStation, where all the effort from Josh’s team and all comes in, is to take that data and make it into something that’s actually good for your body. If you take that static image and create a thing from it, it’s not helping your body; we wash it, we craft it into the shape your body needs to best benefit from it. Then we build a last and build a shoe around its shape for your body. The reason the wood-carved lasts went by the wayside is that they were expensive, they were used once and put by the wayside. There are a lof of people now; we can’t all have our own wood lasts in the back. With MJF, we print not only the lasts, but the unique parts. We print individual areas, apply that to traditional lasts, and can build the shoe around that.”
The FitStation work includes collaboration with DESMA, which Hayes noted requires molds made to go on their particular machines. As with effectively any mold, there are traditionally long lead times and high costs involved in creating molds via specialized mold makers. 3D printing allows for increasingly well-understood benefits in streamlining this process, reducing costs and times.
“MJF moves an $8,000 mold to maybe a $1,500 one. For the future, there’s potential use in development and then production. Compare that with a mold made from aluminum,” Hayes said. “With molding able to move from development to production, there’s potential for profit for outside shoe sizes for a company, for smaller brands that can expand to in-between sizes.”
The pain of having a nonstandard shoe size frequently extends beyond shoe store frustration, as finding a good fit often translates to a good-enough fit — which for those spending significant time on their feet is often not good enough at all. Line and service workers, hikers, runners, or anyone else relying on pedestrian mobility face a tough issue in seeking out the perfect shoes and insoles to keep them as comfortable as possible.
Shoes, St. John affirmed, should be optimized for fit.
“FitStation lets us quantify that, lets us create instructions for manufacturing. Brooks is developing a shoe, produced across the FitStation platform, that all comes down to optimizing the manufacturing infrastructure for it,” he said, touching on the personalized Genesys shoe that Brooks unveiled at the summit.
The partners involved in FitStation create a recommendation process to determine the best route to best fit. This process, Hayes added, offers a helpful approach for customers.
“The onus is entirely on the consumer right now to find what fits for them,” he told me. “FitStation takes that over, cuts the wheat from the chaff if you will, and provides a service, which is very important for the consumer. Designs are curated for the consumer. Curation and customization is the next step up.”
Operating at 29 retail pilot sites as of the time of our chat, St. John pointed to the offerings of FitStation when it comes to 3D scanning feet. Incorporating MJF 3D printing into the end-to-end FitStation platform, HP sees “an opportunity to scale the 3D printed insole business,” he said, as 3D printing custom insoles and orthotics enables a better, more personal fit.
This advanced solution in a platform approach enables not only a better ultimate fit and experience for the consumer, but a new way of thinking for footwear providers.
“Superfeet is 41 years old; we’ve launched a lot of products over the years,” Hayes said. “The ME3D product coming off Multi Jet Fusion has been the most successful product launch in Superfeet history; it has the lowest return rate, the highest rating, and the highest repeat purchase rate. The average Superfeet consumer owns three insoles, which tend to be disparate, think for casual, formal, and hiking shoes. Once they find ME3D, they want more ME3D, which is fantastic. The product itself just performs so much better, because we’re making it specific not just to you, but to your right foot and your left foot. Being able to customize this pair and tailor one for your left foot and one for your right foot, the overall satisfaction rating goes through the roof.”
Very few people are actually symmetrical, and it’s these small variations that give us personality — and can make finding the right fit additionally challenging. This is where 3D printing fits especially well, as the technology is seeing increasing use among a growing amount of businesses involved in the footwear sector.
“With all the applications we’re aware of, in dental, in jewelry, this is the application I’ve seen that’s ripest for it,” St. John said of footwear.
The coming together of footwear and 3D printing is attracting notice worldwide. Advances in the technological capabilities of additive manufacturing are seeing it situated as a strong contender for footwear applications, as materials are strong enough now to support weight in end-use products alongside the use of the technology to create lasts and molds for more traditional fabrication. Integration with advanced platforms incorporating 3D scanning and software support also make more possible.
“It’s not that we’ve been ignoring 3D printing for the last 25 years, it’s that 3D printing wasn’t ready yet to put the Superfeet name on it,” Hayes said of the company’s relationship with the technology.
“The data coming off Fitstation wasn’t there. MJF made it not just economical, but viable performance-wise for us to put our name on it. We’re very confident because of MJF and what the performance can do. Anyone can take a scan of a foot; it’s what you do with that data that matters. FitStation lets us manufacture off that data, and lets us do it at scale, turn it around, and deliver to the customer.”
Scale production and enabling new economies of manufacturing are among the key issues HP has sought to address with its Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing technology. That realizable benefits of these efforts are being acknowledged and put to use in real-world production is a strong statement to the viability of HP’s ambitious disruptive vision for industrial 3D manufacturing.
These visions are being brought to fruition not by MJF alone, of course, but through the integration of complementary technologies, including immersive computing.
“With immersive solutions, either the customer knows exactly what they want to do, like 3D scanning, or they have a problem they need to solve,” St. John told me. “With Superfeet and DESMA, two partners with great expertise and market reach, we bring in 3D printing, manufacturing, IT infrastructure, and distribution. Together, that relationship is able to be really strong, to reinvent manufacturing.”
Comparing use of MJF versus traditionallly made custom insoles, Hayes pointed to benefits such as adjusting flexibility and more design possibilities, “more custom tweaks.”
“This is digital craftsmanship, it’s digitization of craft,” St. John said. “It’s a way to publish shoes.”
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[All photos: Sarah Goehrke]
Technology is capable of amazing things, but it doesn’t mean those things are easy. It’s incredible that scientists can produce DNA in a lab, but the process is difficult, lengthy and requires toxic chemicals. Imagine, however, if they could simply print it, the way that you would 3D print anything else. That could be the future, after scientists at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory developed a new way to synthesize DNA. The method could lead to DNA printers, similar to ordinary 3D printers, that could produce DNA strands that are more accurate and 10 times longer than the strands produced with today’s methods – more quickly and easily, and without the use of toxic chemicals.
“If you’re a mechanical engineer, it’s really nice to have a 3D printer in your shop that can print out a part overnight so you can test it the next morning,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Dan Arlow. “If you’re a researcher or bioengineer and you have an instrument that streamlines DNA synthesis, a ‘DNA printer,’ you can test your ideas faster and try out more new ideas. I think it will lead to a lot of innovation.”
The research was led by Arlow and PhD student Sebastian Palluk, a doctoral student at the Technische Universität Darmstadt in Germany and a visiting student at Berkeley Lab. It is published in a paper entitled “De novo DNA synthesis using polymerase-nucleotide conjugates,” which you can access here. The research was conducted at the Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI).
“I personally think Dan and Sebastian’s new method could revolutionize how we make DNA,” said Jay Keasling, a UC Berkeley professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, senior faculty scientist at Berkeley Lab and Chief Executive Officer of JBEI.
Keasling and JBEI scientists specialize specialize in adding genes to microbes, typically yeast and bacteria, to sustainably produce useful products. Palluk came from Germany specifically to work with Arlow in Keasling’s lab.
“We believe that increased access to DNA constructs will speed up the development of new cures for diseases and simplify the production of new medicines,” Palluk said.
The synthesis of DNA is a growing business; companies are ordering custom-made genes so that they can produce chemicals, biologic drugs or industrial enzymes. Researchers purchase synthetic genes to engineer plants and animals or try out new CRISPR-based disease therapies. Some scientists have even researched storing information in DNA, but that would require much larger quantities of DNA than are currently synthesized. All of these applications require that synthesis produce the desired sequence of nucleotides or bases, the building blocks of DNA, in each of millions or billions of copies of DNA molecules.
Current DNA synthesis is limited to producing oligonucleotides about 200 bases long, because errors in the process lead to a low yield of correct sequences as the length increases. To assemble even a small gene, scientists have to stitch together segments of about 200 bases long. The turnaround time for a small gene of 1,500 bases long can be two weeks at a cost of $300, limiting the experiments that scientists can do. Synthetic biologists like Arlow, Palluk and Keasling often insert a dozen different genes at once into a microbe to get it to produce a chemical, and each gene presents its own synthesis problems.
“As a student in Germany, I was part of an international synthetic biology competition, iGEM, where we tried to get E. coli bacteria to degrade plastic waste,” said Palluk. “But I soon realized that most of the research time was spent just getting all the DNA together, not doing the experiments to see if the engineered cells could break down the plastic. This really motivated me to look into the DNA synthesis process.”
The technology developed by Palluk, Arlow, Keasling and their team relies on a DNA-synthesizing enzyme found in cells of the immune system that has the natural ability to add nucleotides to an existing DNA molecule in water, where DNA is most stable. The technology results in increased precision, allowing synthesis of DNA strands several thousand bases long – a medium-sized gene.
“We have come up with a novel way to synthesize DNA that harnesses the machinery that nature itself uses to make DNA,” Palluk said. “This approach is promising because enzymes have evolved for millions of years to perform this exact chemistry.”
Cells create DNA by copying it with the help of several different polymerase enzymes that build on DNA already in the cell. But in the 1960s, scientists discovered a polymerase that doesn’t rely on an existing DNA template but instead randomly adds nucleotides to genes that make antibodies for the immune system. The enzyme, called terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase (TdT), creates random variation in these genes, resulting in antibody proteins that are better able to attack new types of invaders.
TdT is fast and does not have side-reactions that could affect the resulting molecule. Scientists over the years have tried to use the enzyme to synthesize DNA sequences, but it was hard to control. The key is to find a way to get the enzyme to add one nucleotide and then stop, so that the sequence can be synthesized one base at a time. Previous approaches tried to obtain that control by using modified nucleotides with a special blocking group that prevents multiple additions at once. After the DNA molecules have been extended by a blocked nucleotide, the blocking groups are removed to allow the next addition.
TdT, however, cannot accommodate a blocking group on the nucleotide being added. But Arlow came up with the idea to tether an unblocked nucleotide to TdT, so that after the nucleotide is added, the enzyme remains attached and prevents further additions. After the molecule has been extended, the tether is cut, releasing the enzyme and re-exposing the end for the next addition.
In the first trials, the researchers demonstrated that this technique is not only faster and simpler, but nearly as accurate as other techniques in each step of the synthesis.
“When we analyzed the products using NGS, we were able to determine that about 80 percent of the molecules had the desired 10-base sequence,” Arlow said. “That means, on average, the yield of each step was around 98 percent, which is not too bad for a first go at this 50-plus-year-old problem. We want to get to 99.9 percent in order to make gene-length DNA.”
Once they can reach 99.9 percent fidelity, they can synthesize a 1,000-base-long molecule with a yield of more than 35 percent, which is currently impossible with existing techniques.
“By directly synthesizing longer DNA molecules, the need to stitch oligonucleotides together and the limitations arising from this tedious process could be reduced,” said Palluk. “Our dream is to directly synthesize gene-length sequences and get them to researchers within few days.”
“Our hope is that the technology will make it easier for bioengineers to more quickly figure out how to biomanufacture useful products, which could lead to more sustainable processes for producing the things that we all depend on in the world, including clothing, fuel and food, in a way that requires less petroleum,” said Arlow.
He added, “Our dream is to make a gene overnight. For companies trying to sustainably biomanufacture useful products, new pharmaceuticals, or tools for more environmentally friendly agriculture, and for JBEI and DOE, where we’re trying to produce fuels and chemicals from biomass, DNA synthesis is a key step. If you speed that up, it could drastically accelerate the whole process of discovery.”
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[Source: UC Berkeley / Images: Marilyn Chung, Berkeley Lab]
The high-end fashion world has few names quite as dominant as chanel, so it’s a big deal when they begin to adopt 3D printing. Their novel new watch design Boy-Friend Skeleton features all the high class flourishes one might expect. However, when one digs deeper into its mechanics they might find something incredible. Chanel’s 3D printed […]
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The medical industry uses 3D printing in all sorts of ways, some in actual medical practices and others in tools. However, a new project showcases how additive manufacturing can aid in the production of training. Engineering students in the College of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) have 3D printed medical training equipment for use by undergraduates at […]
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