A student entrepreneur who developed the idea, technology, and production of his own brand of custom 3D printed sneakers will see his “UnisBrands” products hit the market soon.
Nick Unis, who is currently a final year accounting and finance student at Penn State University-Altoona, has been nurturing his idea for custom running shoes since high school.
Having now joined the Happy Valley LaunchBox FastTrack Accelerator, Unis plans to ship the first UnisBrands shoes in Summer 2018, with the aim of averting 24 to 72 hours turnaround per pair.
Unis began customizing and selling unbranded running shoes when still in high school, after working at a Champs Sports shop. “As people were coming in and not finding exactly what they wanted at Champs, I got the idea to fully customize a pair of shoes,” Unis told Altoona news.
Sensing the demand for customized shoes, he began a process of taking them apart, redoing the color and material before selling them on.
One such pair, some Nike Air Jordans wrapped with a custom pattern, reportedly reached a million dollars on an eBay auction before threats of legal action closed down the sale.
3D printing takes over
Undeterred, Unis then decided to pitch an idea for a 3D printed shoe business to the Pechter Business Plan competition. Although unsuccessful, Unis received some positive feedback.
Explaining the decision to remain with 3D printing, Unis noted that it not only made running shoes visually customizable but it could also achieve a closer fit for the customer since both feet are not the same size.
Unis experimented with an initial wooden 3D printer and solid 3D printed concept shoes, before developing his own 3D printer with the help of online tutorials and an unnamed manufacturer.
The design of the running shoes was redeveloped too, with the sole, upper and tongue now 3D printed separately. The Unis FFF 3D printer is still used to produce UnisBrands shoes, and the technology behind it is patent pending.
A refined business model
After winning a subsequent Pechter Business Plan competition, Unis was granted incubator space at the Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence. His $5,000 prize paid for R&D into shoe design, manufacturing, and liner application.
With technical assistance, Unis has now formulated a sizing algorithm to take the length and width of the left and right foot of the customer in order to create a perfect fit prior to 3D printing UnisBrands shoes.
After winning a place at the Happy Valley LaunchBox, Unis now aims to secure new licensing for custom designs, a new range of Birkenstock-style shoes, and space to hold many more 3D printers that can produce shoes in factory-like succession.
So far 3D printing in footwear has been largely limited to 3D printed insoles and midsole designs. UnisBrands, however, 3D prints the entire product, and with a mixture of design innovation and entrepreneurship, it may become a commercial reality.
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Featured image shows Unis displaying his 3D printed running shoes at the LaunchBox. Photo via Samantha Wilson/The Collegian.