3D Printed Footwear3D Scanning SevicesSustainability

Vivobarefoot goes additive to solve for footwear sustainability

The natural health footwear brand’s Asher Clark and Pete Davis break down VivoBiome’s new partnership with Balena

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One size no longer fits all. In fact, it never has. This is where Vivobarefoot, the ‘natural’ shoe company, comes in. In partnership with Balena, the material science company developing advanced biopolymer materials, the pair is addressing the negative impacts of the footwear industry through the combination of technology, such as 3D printing, and materials inspired by nature. We recently caught up with Asher Clark, Co-founder of Vivobarefoot, and Pete Davis, Computational Design Lead at VivoBiome, the company’s innovation lab, to find out more about this collaboration and what makes it different from those that have come before it.

Vivobarefoot and Balena go additive to solve for footwear sustainability. An interview with Asher Clark and Pete Davis about VivoBiome.

The World Footwear Yearbook reports that 24 billion pairs of shoes are added to the market annually. Vivobarefoot is committed to solving this humanity-wide problem using what the company refers to as the ‘alien method’ – if aliens were to come to Earth and start making footwear, how would they do it if they were not constrained by traditional technology and deeply accepted ways of thinking?

Attempting this is ambitious, to say the least. Counterintuitively, compared to rocketry: “Rocketry is just an equation, and these equations have been done before. The environment does not change, but with footwear, we don’t have a constant. Even if we were the same size, your foot could just be monumentally different in multiple ways,” said Pete Davis, who was previously Director of Advanced Projects at Hyperganic.

Vivobarefoot and Balena go additive to solve for footwear sustainability. An interview with Asher Clark and Pete Davis about VivoBiome.

The journey toward a circular end-of-life system for footwear faces a significant challenge rooted in the complicated nature of shoes – both in their design intricacy and the diverse materials used during manufacturing. The complexity arises from the multitude of components – making recycling and reintegrating used shoes into the supply chain a formidable task. Therefore, the need for biodegradable material alternatives becomes imperative – offering an environmentally friendly approach to the challenges posed by the current limitations of recycling in the footwear industry.

Balena materials

Balena was established in 2019 by David Roubach after he attended a talk by Asher Clark. The company aims to tackle the sustainability challenges by developing compostable, biobased, recyclable, thermoplastic materials with advanced performance properties for scaled, durable goods production, including footwear.

Its proprietary BioCir Flex is one such thermoplastic elastomer. Comprising over 50% bio-based content, it actively reduces the dependence on toxic, fossil fuel-based materials typically used in the footwear industry and aims to replace unsustainable materials such as TPU, PVC, and LDPE. Through a biological recycling mechanism, products crafted from BioCir Flex can decompose and biodegrade – safely returning to the ground within controlled industrial compost environments.

Balena’s 3D printing specific material – the BioCir3D – maintains high flexibility similar to TPU, providing reliable and long-lasting 3D printed products. It is also biobased and industrially compostable – reducing the environmental impact of discarded prints and enabling the 3D printing of flexible and durable items.

VivoBiome’s scan-to-print

As part of Vivobarefoot’s approach to using business as a force for good, the company is determined to create fully circular barefoot footwear. VivoBiome (deriving from the words ‘biometric’, meaning biological measurements that can be used to identify individuals, and ‘mimetic’, meaning characterized by the nature of imitation or mimicry) is its radical vision for a scan-to-print digital footwear system that reimagines how footwear is designed and made, using biomimetic design principles, additive manufacturing methods, and Balena’s biobased and biodegradable BioCir flex material to produce some of the world’s first 3D printed, bespoke, and circular footwear. This partnership is expected to enable the wearer to reconnect to nature and move naturally – leaving no waste behind.

Vivobarefoot and Balena go additive to solve for footwear sustainability. An interview with Asher Clark and Pete Davis about VivoBiome. One of the most interesting parts of this business model is the scan-to-print. This approach means that, once the wearer’s foot is scanned, the data captured is transformed into native code for all major printing methods – bypassing the need for manual human-oriented modeling software and replacing it instead with end-to-end computational workflow. This is where the ‘alien method’ is made clear.

Thanks to 3D printing, the technology responsible for the democratization of material goods, alongside advanced bio-based materials, the companies hope to combat the immense footwear waste challenge by enabling on-demand production – extending product lifespan through personalization and design flexibility. When asked whether Vivobarefoot is considering going ‘solely’ additive, Asher Clark stated that it was “not if, but when.”

VivoBiome is currently in the testing phase in the UK with a wear-testing group of VivoBiome Pioneers. The company plans to test Biome footwear made with Balena’s BioCer within the next 6 months, and for the footwear to be available to customers in the next 18 months.

3D printing is revolutionizing the footwear industry at large, as shown by the adoption of the technology by companies such as HILOS, Zellerfeld, and Adidas. Last year, VoxelMatters attended the first annual FOOTPRINT3D event in Barcelona, where the use cases and business models of adopters were explored in-depth. Our interview with the Founder of HILOS, Elias Stahl, can be found here.

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Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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