Huntsman Polyurethanes has collaborated on a new, first of its kind shoe production method that it claims can help bring local production overheads into line with lower labour cost countries.

The company has partnered with shoe production engineering specialist DESMA and Spanish tech company Simplicity Works to develop a highly automated, cost-effective way of bonding together two-dimensional components, in a single shot, to form a seamless, three-dimensional upper. They say the innovation offers new possibilities to manufacturers looking to produce closer to customers in Europe and North America.

Requiring no stitching and no lasting, Simplicity Works’ patent-protected 3D Bonding Technology connects all pieces of a shoe simultaneously, in just a few seconds. Faster and cheaper than conventional footwear manufacturing techniques, the new technology can be customised to suit requirements and is flexible – meaning footwear manufacturers can choose to use it as the main joining technique or combine it with traditional stitching methods for functional or decorative purposes. 
The 3D Bonding Technology employs an innovative 3D mould design created by Simplicity Works; a specifically designed, injectable material from Huntsman Polyurethanes; and a state-of-the-art DESMA injection-moulding machine.

In the first step, individual upper components are placed into the mould, in slots separated by narrow channels. A counter mould then presses each piece into place. The network of channels between the upper components is then injected, in a single shot, with the high-performance polyurethane developed by Huntsman. The end result is a shoe upper that is held together by a flexible, polyurethane skeleton.

To obtain an excellent quality polyurethane foam structure, which forms a durable skin, with a high definition texture, Simplicity Works and Huntsman extensively researched new processes and materials. Available in different colours, the texture of the bonded polyurethanes lines (or ribways) can be varied so that designers can select glossy or matt options combined with multiple other, textile-like surface finishes.
Suitable for creating all kinds of shoes, and compatible with different synthetic and natural materials, the 3D Bonding Technology can make shoe production outside of low labour cost countries far more cost competitive, the firms say. With no seams to stitch, the overall production process is less labour intensive, thereby reducing overheads. Material costs are also lower as there are no overlapping areas and much less waste.

Meanwhile, there are additional benefits from a consumer perspective. With no knitting or stitching lines, and no doubling-up of material, shoes have less friction and pressure points and behave more like a pair of socks. Shoes are also more waterproof as there are no needle holes or permeable seam lines.  
“I’ve worked in the footwear industry for 25 years, in different countries and continents, so am very familiar with the complexities involved in conventional shoe production. Six years ago, I realised there was a way to simplify footwear manufacturing,” explains Adrian Hernandez, CEO of Simplicity Works and inventor of 3D Bonding Technology. “Keen to redress the geographical balance in the footwear industry in terms of labour costs, I came up with a radical new process that can make shoe production in North America and Europe more cost effective, while also increasing comfort for consumers. With my concept patent-protected, I began looking for partners to make my vision a reality; which led me to DESMA and Huntsman.” 
Working closely together over the last six years, the three teams have pooled their knowledge and expertise to create a process with the potential to shake up the shoe sector.

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And the timing could not be better, says Hernandez. “Currently, an estimated 80% of European footwear imports come from low cost labour countries. Faced with rising costs in these territories, many footwear companies are looking to move production back to Europe and North America. Our 3D Bonding Technology enables them to do just that, creating shoes that are more economical than those created in Asia – and that’s before factoring in transportation cost savings.”