Putting Their Best Foot Forward

Light Insoles uses a “Mold-to-Sole” technology featuring a light-curing resin which bonds reinforcement fibers together. This produces a custom shoe insert molded perfectly to a patient’s foot in less than two minutes.
Photo courtesy of Light Insoles.

Sols and Light Insoles are moving forward, feet first, offering custom shoe inserts using two different styles of additive manufacturing.

Rebecca Carnes
Design-2-Part Magazine

Two startups—both with an eye on mass customization—are using 3D printing to offer custom shoe insoles that promise to fit right to a person’s foot.

Advancements in materials, process, and software have made these two startups—one in Los Angeles and one in New York City—on the cutting edge of custom orthotics for patients with foot complications.

But these companies have also entered the realm of the sports industry and even high fashion. And they both promise to soon provide custom foot inserts for anyone who has the need or desire—in any kind of shoe.

While one company (Light Insoles) has a vision of creating custom inserts produced in less than a minute in a doctor’s office using a UV light curing technology, the other (SOLS) uses advanced software algorithms to 3D print custom inserts that are then mailed directly to the customer.

Both startups offer a glimpse into the impact 3D printing is having on products that can be customized for the masses.

Design-2-Part recently spoke with representatives of SOLS and Light Insoles to highlight what each company offers and explore their different approaches to manufacturing custom shoe inserts.

What process is used to produce the custom shoe inserts?

SOLS - A doctor uses the SOLS app to take three photos of a patient’s feet using an iPad. The SOLS software program uses the images to extract two different sets of data points for each foot, according to Leslie Borrell, senior vice president of engineering and tech operations for SOLS. The data is sent via a CAD file to a 3D printing facility, which uses selective laser sintering (SLS) to fuse nylon powder to an accuracy of 5 microns. The customer then gets the SOLS in about 10 days.

Light Insoles - The patient puts each foot into a “Lightbox,” where a pre-cured “blank,” developed with a proprietary resin, conforms around the patient’s foot using UV LED curing technology that results in a useable orthotic insert in less than two minutes. “It’s done directly on the foot, so there’s no 3D scanning,” Jacobsen said. “I use soft impression foam to mold the shape of the insole. You use the foot as the mold, and so the insole is cured directly onto a person’s foot.”

Product Details:

SOLS - Aerospace-grade, nylon fiber is fused into an anti-microbial insole. Density of the material is varied to create hole patterns that act as a “trampoline,” taking a person’s weight into account and adding spring and suspension to each step. Retail price: $125.

SOLS are software-driven, custom shoe inserts that use patient-specific algorithms sent via a STL file to a 3D printer.
Photo courtesy of SOLS.

Light Insoles -
The lightweight, ultra-supportive, high-performance insoles are thermoset to retain shape and support over time. They’re made with UV directional glass fibers that are held together using a patent-pending UV cured resin acting as the binding matrix. Insoles feature air vents for breathability and cooling and can be worn above or below existing foam in shoes. Estimated retail price: $100.

Light Insoles are made with UV directional glass fibers for strength and a UV cured resin as the matrix that binds the fibers together. The resulting shoe inserts are extremely lightweight.
Photo courtesy of Light Insoles.

What are some future applications for the custom inserts?

Schouwenburg says she sees her company heading in two directions. One direction involves improving the software to make it scalable for braces or casts or anything that fits the human body. The second direction involves 3D printing an entire shoe with on-demand technology and real-time data collection through sensors. This could be applied to the sports industry with calculating risk of injury and to the fashion industry to change the color of a shoe to match an outfit.

“It is my belief that technology and, more specifically, algorithms, will unlock a scalable and automated process for custom-fit production. The process of turning dumb data into smart data for physical objects will dominate the next decade. Integrated sensors will then take real-world feedback from those objects and communicate it back to the user to make informed decisions,” said Schouwenburg.

SOLS custom shoe inserts are made of nylon fiber that provides an “energy return” with each step because of the varied density of the 3D printed material.
Photo courtesy of SOLS.

Sensors that are embedded into the orthotics need to be durable and long-lasting, Said Sols’ Borrell. For an athletic user, sensors could give feedback about their running pace, for instance, she said. Customers could also receive feedback about gait and posture from sensors hooked up to their smartphone, and doctors could get detailed information from sensors regarding where a patient is putting pressure.

SOLS custom orthotics are currently available from more than 350 professional providers as listed on the website. Recently, SOLS has become available on a walk-in basis at a showroom in West Chelsea, N.Y.

Light Insoles - Jacobsen’s ultimate goal is to provide orthotic patients, athletes, and regular customers with a custom insert molded directly to the foot in less than two minutes.

“There’s no one else doing UV cured composites in insoles today,” he said. “The custom orthotic insole would be made directly on a patient’s foot and they just walk away with it.”

Light Insoles is still in its testing phase and has no official customers yet. But with two new partners and some new investors, Jacobsen said he sees Light Insoles on the market in the spring of 2016, beginning as locally available throughout Los Angeles and then expanding.

They Said It:

SOLS - “Advances in machine learning have enabled us to move from a landscape where singular and often contradictory decisions are being made, to a landscape where computers can process those decisions against the problem statement and output a repetitive and correct solution. This reduces the risk of error and enables democratization access to treatment at an ultimately low cost.” —Kegan Schouwenburg, president, SOLS

Light Insoles - “The ability to make an orthotic insert real-time on a person’s foot is a game changer compared to the other technologies. With all the other technologies, you have to wait to have the information sent somewhere, and then have the part built and then sent back. With Light Insoles, you can build a part instantaneously on a person’s foot.” —Alan Jacobsen, founder, Light Insoles

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