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MIT’s Future Shoe Can Transform Itself

Watch designers Christophe Guberan and Skylar Tabbits’ Minimal Shoe change on its own.
Active shoes upper fold, courtesy of the designers

It’s mind-bending enough to 3D print shoes and other textiles. But what if these textiles could be made active, capable of self-transforming in response to stimuli like temperature and moisture? This is the challenge that industrial designers Christophe Guberan and Carlo Clopath undertook at MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab alongside computer scientist and designer Skylar Tibbits.

The group met a few years back at MIT while working on programmable and “jumping” textiles, fiber, and wood at the Self-Assembly Lab. An invitation to design future footwear for Camper’s Life On Foot exhibition at Design London Museum led Guberan to enlist Tibbits to help create a 3D printing system that could handle the task of creating “active shoes” under the Minimal Shoe project.


Active shoes upper cutting, courtesy of the designers

To create the Minimal Shoe, Guberan, Clopath, and Tibbits decided to 3D print extruded plastic—using fused deposition modeling—in programmed patterns onto stretched textiles. When the textile is released from the stretch, it jumps, morphing into a secondary shape.

“[Minimal Shoe] is an active textile and it’s a work in progress,” Guberan says. “We can shrink the size of the shoe, have it contract around your feet. 3D printing [entire] shoes is quite long and inefficient, so we minimized the amount of 3D printing used. It’s quite interesting to say that we don’t have to 3D print the entire shoe, but we can add to existing material.”

Active shoes upper and sole folding, courtesy of the designers

Tibbits adds that shoes are quite complex geometrically, as well as in how they are put together with a variety of materials—leather, mesh, rubber souls and so on. Their goal was to bring shape-shifting shoes to the user. Though this hybrid manufacturing technique allows for customization, Guberan, Clopath, and Tibbits are still discovering exactly what can be done with their process.

“We can have active textiles that self-transform, but also make it efficient so that it could be feasible to produce these because it’s a minimal amount of time and material to get the textile highly active,” he says. “Whatever pattern, type, and thickness of the material you use, those become the geometric program, so that when you release the textile it jumps into shape based on what you printed. So, that’s how we can get the right shape and textures.”


ACTIVE SHOES Upper and Sole from Christophe Guberan on Vimeo.

Interestingly, many other materials could be used to create active shoes instead of 3D-printed plastic. Tibbits says printing is good for customization as far as quickly changing the pattern and creating prototypes, but manufacturing can do the same thing, applying bonding and lamination onto the pre-stretched textile.

The more ambitious goal would be to print the whole shoe, as the duo’s video of the black upper and lower shoe illustrates. But Tibbits says the more realistic version is to print the upper part of the shoe, as seen in the white upper shoe video, then combine it with more traditional footwear materials like leather (real or synthetic) and rubber. He says that a big sportswear company is currently interested in the printing process, but he has no idea if the fruits of such a collaboration would ever see the market.

ACTIVE SHOES Upper from Christophe Guberan on Vimeo.

“It’s really about trying to open up the possibility that all of our textiles can be active and responsive to the environment as well as the user and his or her performance,” Tibbits says. “So we don’t have to think of our world as this static, dead and cold materials. They can be highly active and it doesn’t mean that they’re any more expensive. It doesn’t mean that we have robots or sensors because we have these really subtle ways of combining material properties to make textiles active.”


Click here to see more projects at the Self-Assembly Lab.


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