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When football was first becoming popular, people would wear their hard and heavy work boots to play. These were steel toe capped, made of leather and included a high ankle guard. It wasn’t until later in the 19th century that the first ever boots manufactured specifically for football were introduced, weighing over 500g. They also doubled in weight when wet (and according to my Grandad so did the ball).
Since then football boots have evolved dramatically. The focus from manufacturers has changed from protection to fashionable designs and increasing control with lighter and more flexible materials.
However in the modern era, and with games being played at an ever faster tempo there is a requirement for boots to become even lighter, whilst providing maximum control and comfort. With that in mind 3D printing has been widely tipped to be the next big trend for manufacturers. So, will the stars of future World Cups in 2022, 2026 or 2030 be stepping onto the turf in truly customised boots produced using this technology?
3D printing would allow players to truly personalise footwear like never before. The technology would enable football boots to be created from a scan of a players’ foot, enabling them to fit perfectly for maximum comfort and control.
It sounds like an obvious choice, so why aren’t 3D printed boots readily available and why aren’t Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi wearing them already? The answer is actually very simple, the technology is just not yet advanced enough.
Shoes have been designed and created using 3D printing for a number of years already, with sports manufacturers including New Balance even creating a running shoe with a 3D-printed midsole, however none of the synthetic materials used for printing in 3D are currently fit for making a complete product that is deemed to be competitive against existing football boots on the market.
Companies including Adidas, Nike and PUMA are currently using materials that are less than a millimetre thick, but remain elastic, water resistant and durable when stitched. Sadly the combination of those properties cannot currently be replicated with 3D printing.
However, despite none of the large manufacturers yet managing to display a working model which is commercially viable, there have been some very promising prototypes that have appeared on the Internet, none more so than a pair of 3D printed football boots created in 2013 by former professional footballer Sam Margetts for his course at Auckland University.
He created a ‘second-skin’ boot aimed at players of all ages and skill levels. He wanted to address the issue that most non-professional footballers currently have to find a boot that offers a fit that is ‘close enough’ to their foot shape, rather than fitting.
His design uses a similar concept and material to a “boil and bite” sports mouth guard. Players would heat the boots in warm water and then conform the shape of the boot exactly to the shape of their foot by applying pressure to certain areas and tightening the laces.
As a result their boots provide a completely moulded and skin-tight fit, with the material ensuring that the boots are shock absorbant, like a mouth guard. This means added protection from foot injuries. Other positive features of the material are that it is soft to the touch (increasing ball control), durable, lightweight and waterproof.
To ensure that the boot remains lightweight for maximum performance, Sam’s design also incorporates a seamless, 3D knitted polyester mesh sock that was developed to reinforce the outer forming material. As a result the forming material is able to be thinner and lighter, whilst remaining just as strong and robust.
For more information you can read Sam Margetts’ full blog at https://sammargetts.wordpress.com/.
The Alternative to 3D Printing
3D printing isn’t the only option on the table however, with companies including Under Armour working instead on engineering new auxetic materials specifically for football boots. Auxetics have a negative Poisson's ratio and when stretched, they become thicker perpendicular to the applied force
Image: University of Malta
Speaking to the SportTechie Podcast with Bram Weinstein in September 2017, Under Armour’s Senior Director of Global Football Footwear, Antonio Zea said: “I’m part of the process of concept through to shelf, focusing on innovation.
“We aim to understand what football players need and how the game can be shaped in the future. We don’t just want to be a brand that sells footwear, we want to change the game.”
“Football is a traditional sport in a lot of ways. The game right now you can see changing a bit with technology, but the products that players wear, the way the game is played, talked about and thought about hasn’t changed much. The experience of buying football boots, wearing football boots, what they can do. There have been a lot of changes but I really believe that the game can change a lot in the future.
“To be very specific, we’re still gluing hard stuff to soft stuff in order to make football boots and inherently that brings a lot of challenges. Technology has moved on from 40 years ago, but the experience hasn’t changed significantly.
“I have to think about the future of not just what a boot can look like but also how you can really change the feeling and experience that players have with the boot. We want to re-kindle the relationship between players and their boots.
“Everybody’s feet are shaped differently, so how can we ensure the best fit for each person? How do we allow them to personalise their experience and allow them to choose everything down to the material.
“We’re using some new techniques and different techniques. If you ask any player in the world they want their boot to look good and fit really well. From arches to widths and step heights each person’s feet are different.
“We have started to create prototypes using auxetic moulding to try and build on the concept of fit. We want the perfect fit for everybody during all times of the game. We have even engineered a brand new material using this technique, which will be released during 2018. We want to challenge the concepts of what fit can be. If we can get that right, everything afterwards becomes easier.
“A shoe has to fits every foot, everywhere in all circumstances, but this is not realistic with the way that the industry currently makes footwear. So how can we start to use materials that are more personalised to each player’s performance, fitting to their foot over time and essentially building a true extension of their body?
“We’ve started to really look at customisation, personalisation and bespoke football boots, so that they really do become an extension of the players body.”
The Evolution Continues
So there are a number of options for the future of football boot design, but the end goal for each is to ensure that the fit is customised to each player’s feet. Would you trust a 3D printed option? Let us know in the comments below.