By Emma Thomasson and Aleksandra Michalska
HERZOGENAURACH, Germany/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Adidas launched a new sneaker on Friday with a 3D-printed sole that it plans to mass-produce next year, part of a broader push by the German sportswear firm to react faster to changing fashions and create more customized products.
Adidas already lets people customize the color and pattern of shoes ordered online but new 3D printing methods will make small production runs, limited edition shoes and even soles designed to fit an individual's weight and gait economical.
Rivals Nike, Under Armour and New Balance have also been experimenting with 3D printing but have so far only used the technique to make prototypes, soles tailored for sponsored athletes and a handful of high-priced novelty shoes.
That's because traditional 3D printers are slower, more expensive and often create an inferior product than the injection moulds for plastic that are currently used to produce hundreds of millions of shoes each year, mostly in Asia.
However, Adidas says its new partnership with Silicon Valley start-up Carbon allows it to overcome many of those difficulties to produce a sole that can rival one made by an injection mould, and at a speed and price that allow for mass production.
"This is a milestone not only for us as a company but also for the industry," said Gerd Manz, Adidas head of technology innovation, announcing the launch of its new "Futurecraft 4D" shoe. "We've cracked some of the boundaries."
Carbon, financed by venture firms such as Sequoia Capital as well as funds set up by General Electric and Alphabet's Google, has pioneered a technique that prints with light-sensitive polymer resin that is then baked for strength.
Standard 3D printers build up products with layers of plastic powder, a method used by Hewlett Packard which is working with Nike and says its newest machines work 10 times faster and at half the cost than earlier models.
Adidas hopes to sell 5,000 pairs of its "Futurecraft 4D" this year, and 100,000 next year as Carbon cuts the time it takes to print a sole from the current hour and a half to as low as 20 minutes per sole.
The shoes will sell at an unspecified premium price but Adidas plans to lower the cost as the technology develops.
Late last year Adidas sold a few hundred pairs of running shoes with soles made by regular 3D printing for $333 but they were relatively rigid and heavy and took 10 hours to print.
"WALK BEFORE YOU RUN"
Carbon's technology will allow Adidas to make small batches of shoes far more quickly. Small production runs were not economical before as the metal moulds for most soles need to be used 10,000 times to pay for themselves, and they take four to six weeks to cast and grind.
"What you can do is introduce more types of products without a cost penalty," said Terry Wohlers, head of Wohlers Associates, a U.S. consultancy specializing in 3D printing. "With this technology, you can produce one or a few inexpensively."
Wohlers expects the 3D printing industry to more than quadruple sales to $26 billion by 2022, driven mostly by the automotive, medical, dental and jewelry sectors.
Adidas initially plans batches of shoes tailored to specific sports or cities but hopes consumers will eventually be measured and tested in store to design perfectly-fitting shoes tweaked for an individual's gait, weight and type of sport.
"Individualization will come, but you've got to learn to walk before you run," Manz said, citing a survey that shows 80 percent of consumers want to be part of the design process.
Adidas last month experimented with a pop-up store where customers could design a custom-fitted sweater and have it knitted in the store.
3D printing will also help cut the time it takes to get new designs to stores from the 12 to 18 months it usually takes for sneakers. To that end, Adidas is also opening factories mainly operated by robots in Germany and the United States.
(Editing by David Clarke)