Cordwainers* par excellence, Clarks, go ape for 3D printing

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Clark’s has a rich heritage from its foundation in the 1825 by two brothers in Somerset.

Interesting story out of Z Corporation today. According to the company, shoe manufacturing organisation, Clarks has “transformed its development process to release better, more stylish shoes earlier in the fashion life cycle,” by adopting the company’s ZPrinters.

For those of us in the UK, Clarks is the stuff of legend. Saturday morning, being dragged up the shops with your mum, hoping to get the school shoes you wanted (Clarks Commando’s anyone?), but coming away with the sensible ones you had to have.

Headquartered in the UK, the global company has removed weeks – and in some cases, months – from the design process by digitizing prototyping with help from Z Corporation 3D printing technology. While the story is solid, one thing I take exception to is the comment that “Traditionally, shoemakers use paper sketches, factory-manufactured samples and design reviews to move concepts toward production.” Frankly, that’s not been the case in mass production of footwear for decades and those involved in the industry know that shoe design and preparation for manufacturing is a science, a very very complex one. If you want to know what sort of technology is out there, take a look-see at the Crispin tools from Delcam.

That aside, it’s clear that shoe design has been a key market for many of the rapid prototyping vendors – particularly when it comes to sole design, where look is just as important as feel and function.

Devil is in the details

3D printing of new digital designs enables Clarks’ digital development team to create detailed, colorful physical shoe models in hours instead of the two weeks it used to take for manufactured samples to return, dramatically reducing time and cost.

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Rather than wait two or three weeks for a costly prototype to arrive, we now have a full, multicolour prototype in our hands in a day,” said Ross Authers, Clarks’ digital development manager. “We save a lot of time and money both in production and shipping. This more efficient process significantly enhances the quality of the final shoe, which arrives in the store much earlier in the style cycle.”

When you move a model on screen, you’re doing it in an artificial way from a single, fixed point of reference,” said Authers. “You miss the subtle visual changes that occur as real light glances off different parts of the model at different angles, and as your hand moves naturally. When you’re holding a shoe model in your hand, your eyes are constantly moving, and the shoe seems to almost change shape as you turn it. This matters because, as you’ll notice, there’s not a single straight line on a shoe. You need to see it in three full dimensions.

There’s also an insight into the workflow at Clarks, who print one or two physical 3D models per day, as well as popular miniature shoe models for marketing and sales. It would normally take Clarks months to go from concept to approved product. With its new automation strategy, involving digital shoe design and Z Corp 3D printing, it can shrink that cycle time to weeks. Which is, of course, ideal when the pressure is truly on. Once a product is approved, it can be re-printed in other locations around the world, adding further time and cost savings.

3D printing is the technology that brings all of our development advances together, helping us evolve from the best shoemakers in the world into the best innovators in the world,” said Authers. “We can respond to the market faster than ever, and faster than our competitors, allowing us time to experiment with designs we would not normally achieve. These advantages are helping us expand our business into new market segments and territories. We’re on the verge of a revolution of efficiency and approaching the reality of ‘fully engineered’ shoes. Although we have 185 years in a 9,000-year-old industry, it feels like a new dawn.

Good to see that Clarks are rocking it like they mean it. Clarks’ name is synonymous with music and style across the last couple of decades. From the Mod’s kicking it up on the sea front at Brighton with their wallabees, desert boots, fish-tail parkas and Lambrettas through to the dance-halls of Jamaica.

* Cordwainer is the proper name for a maker of shoes. Cobblers just repair them. Don’t tell me you didn’t learn anything today.


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