Reinventing casual: Voxel8 & Hush Puppies discuss their collaboration

Owed to its origins in serving the US military, its claims of ‘inventing casual’ back in the 1950s and its ability to attract the custom of David Bowie, Tom Hanks and Sharon Stone, durability, comfort and style have always been the focus for Hush Puppies.

And despite the global footwear brand’s VP/GM Kate Pinkham recently hinting at a fresh approach to ‘reinvent casual’ over the coming decades, those requirements remain top of mind for the company.

Pinkham made the remark about reinventing casual when commenting on the company’s excitement to collaborate with Voxel8, the Massachusetts-based 3D printing firm recently acquired by Kornit Digital, whose high-speed industrial inkjet technology is used to develop products in the apparel and textiles industries.

By the time Voxel8 was acquired by Kornit Digital, its work with Hush Puppies was already well underway. As with other partnerships between footwear brands and 3D printing providers, the Hush Puppies collaboration is exploiting Voxel8’s ability to print lattice structures.

“3D printing is rapidly evolving as a viable footwear technology,” Louk Schulten, Product Development Director at Hush Puppies, told TCT. “Voxel8 developed, patented and owns the printer-heads that make it possible to print our 3D lattice. It is unique to them and now to Hush Puppies to be able to create and produce these lattices. No other company in the world can produce these.” 

In particular, the focus is on midsole inserts, with the lattices being ‘precisely tuned’ to ensure enhanced shock absorption. Using Voxel8-printed latticed midsole inserts, there is no deviation in shock absorption and four times less thickness change after 100,000 cycles when compared to traditional foams. This means that Hush Puppies shoes fitted with these 3D printed midsole inserts can match the comfort of existing footwear products with a significant increase in longevity.

“For a consumer, when they buy a pair of Hush Puppies, they would like to make sure that the comfort they feel on day one is the comfort they feel a year later,” Friedrich von Gottberg, VP Additive Manufacturing Textiles at Kornit Digital (formerly Voxel8 CEO), said. “And the problem with traditional foams is they essentially collapse and bottom out over a period of time. So, they may feel comfortable in the store, but give yourself a few months, they don’t feel so comfortable.” 

“The Voxel8 lattice provides a cushioning platform with an infinite number of options to customise underfoot cushioning and rebound/ energy return that Air, Gel and Boost [other footwear cushioning types] cannot provide,” explained Pete Dillon, Senior Product Developer at Hush Puppies.

Voxel8’s approach to addressing these issues has been to take advantage of the latticing capabilities and materials portfolio of its ActiveLab 3D printing offering. The company’s technology leans on the ActiveMix printhead which enables ‘on the fly formulation of high-performance elastomers’, whereby the material properties of the printed structures can be changed by ‘multiple orders of magnitude.’ ActiveMix supports both extrusion and spray deposition and is capable of controlling the precision dosing of elastomeric raw materials to generate the aforementioned material property changes across a single print with one material set.

The company works with high-performance materials, such as polyurethane elastomers, and uses its ActiveMix printhead to adjust the properties of the polymer in accordance with the demands of the application. In terms of hardness, for example, Voxel8 prototyped a series of latticed midsole inserts for Hush Puppies ranging from a softer 50 Shore A hardness to a stiffer 85 Shore A hardness, before assessing each iteration in compression and rebound tests. This ability to alter the material properties via the ActiveMix printhead is compounded by Voxel8’s ability to also tweak the lattice structure to impact on performance characteristics like comfort and longevity.

“You start off with having the best materials,” von Gottberg explained, “but then, more importantly, you can change the chemical composition of the lattice structure as you’re printing it, so the bottom of the lattice can be different from the top, the left, the right, the middle, etc. Hence, you’ve got another handle to vary properties and, as a result, you can tune or customise what you’re looking for from the lattice you create. This ability to tune and change chemical composition while you’re printing is really unique.”

While demonstrating these capabilities through its work with Hush Puppies, Voxel8 has been developing prototypes locally within days and hours, allowing the footwear brand to review the designs, test them, generate feedback and start the next cycle of iterations much more efficiently than it typically would. In the past, Hush Puppies, like many other fashion brands, has prototyped and manufactured products exclusively in Asia, leading to design and production cycles of up to 18 months.

With Voxel8 proving out the logic of prototyping locally, the idea for Hush Puppies to onshore at some point in the future is certainly on the agenda. For the latticed midsole inserts, production will ramp up at Voxel8’s Somerville, MA facility before expanding to Asia for volume manufacturing. But Voxel8 believes there is huge potential for brands like Hush Puppies to begin manufacturing products locally again.

Through the work Voxel8 and Kornit Digital do in the apparel industries, they are aware that while most brands will continue to manufacture out in Asia, there is an interest in onshoring. Though it will take time to transfer supply chains from one continent to another, Voxel8 and Kornit Digital believe it will help to significantly reduce the 18-month design and production cycles, open the door for customised products and result in a more sustainable way of manufacturing.

“Sustainability goes hand in hand with customisation and personalisation,” von Gottberg said. “A lot of times, when you make apparel, about 30% of it is thrown away, because it never actually meets the demand of the consumer: fashion trends change, etc. But, if you’re making something for a particular individual, guess what? You’re making it for a person who is going to use it and hence you’re reducing a lot of waste, so they’re all intertwined. And if you do it locally, you can deliver within days or hours, which is the holy grail. That’s actually [another] important element, because as they onshore, customisation and personalisation become real. It’s no use personalising something and having to wait six weeks. If you want to personalise it, you need to do it quickly. The brands are going to drive it and it will take time, but eventually they’re going to get to this personalisation element.”

This was a driving factor when Kornit Digital began to consider acquiring Voxel8. Over the last few years, the company has identified a series of societal trends – accelerated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic – that point towards a need for the on-demand manufacture of customised or personalised goods in a more sustainable way. Kornit Digital CTO Kobi Mann explained that the company needed a complimentary technology to its existing inkjet solutions in order to facilitate that and become the ‘on-demand operation system for sustainable manufacturing.’

In Hush Puppies, it has a partner that is already seeing the fruits of this ambitions. By aligning with Voxel, it is enjoying the ability to print parts with a high degree of accuracy’ that ‘create less waste and give each piece a specific function and purpose.’ The company is also now relying less on tier 2 suppliers, further exploring customised footwear products, and believes it can compete with the biggest footwear brands around.

“Voxel8 gives Hush Puppies the ability to address needs and customise footwear on and under the foot without moulds, cutting dies and MOQs [minimum order quantities],” noted Dillon, “allowing for things like different under foot cushioning for men’s and women’s or per size; multi density cushioning with no adhesives; and upper designs that reduce the number of materials used, saving the ecosystem while providing unlimited options in colour and physical properties.”

“[3D printing] gives Hush Puppies a competitive edge and the ability to propel the brand forward to the forefront of practical and applicable shoe component development,” Schulten added. “In a matter of fact, it puts Hush Puppies at par or ahead of brands like Adidas, Nike and New Balance who all have shown interest in the same 3D printed shoe components.”

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