January 11, 2017

Material Matters: Future Fabrics

Behind each and every sneaker innovation are a multitude of clever people and a boatload of creativity. As we settle into 2017 and prepare for the coming torrent of releases, we can’t help but wonder what the secretive R&D departments might be cooking up for us, what are the boffins brainstorming for the rest of the year? Well, we don’t have any classified info we can leak – but we reckon we can do the next best thing. Let’s take a look at some of the things we can hope to see more of in the not-too-distant future.

Some things we talk a lot about in reference to sneaker construction are strength and weight. Ideally, a shoe should be as light as possible while still remaining supportive and strong. In the past we’ve gone from leather to nylon, all the way to Nike’s highly engineered Flyknit technology. In 2016 adidas and Reebok both flew under the radar with limited editions released reinforced using Dyneema – a fibre made from Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene, which is stronger than steel but floats on water.

adidas Ultra Boost with Dyneema

adidas Ultra Boost with Dyneema

Until recently, the world’s strongest known material was Graphene (which was bumped off the top in 2016 by Carbyne), a two-dimensional material made from a single layer of carbon atoms, bonded with a super tough hexagonal lattice. Graphene has already made its way into the garment world, with companies such as Colmar working it into ski suits, as well as the development of firefighting gear with the tough stuff built in. It’s generally applied as a treatment to strengthen and insulate existing materials. On top of being strong, it’s also really good at retaining heat and even conducting electricity. With a new generation of adaptive footwear on the way there will surely be a wave of smart footwear in the not too distant future – in fact, there are some fringe brands popping up on Kickstarter with these kinds of ambitions already. There’s definitely a place in the future for an ultra light, super strong, conductive material like Graphene.

Graphene

Graphene

Even Tony Stark's making the switch.

Even Tony Stark's making the switch.

If we’re going to be seeing power hungry smart footwear, then we might need an alternative to charging stations and chunky batteries. Researchers in the US have developed a woven fabric that includes solar cells constructed from polymer fibres, as well as a fibre-based nanogenerator that can create electricity from motion. These can be woven into staple fabrics such as wool, hopefully only a matter of time before brands like adidas are loading up Primeknit machines with solar-cell woollen yarns for a self-powered shoe that can send alerts to your phone when you’re putting on weight. It’s not only the sporting companies getting involved though, Apple currently holds several patents for smart shoe concepts. Then there are colour changing membranes, lights and any additional do-hickies you can imagine ­–­ the possibilities of the powered shoe are many.

Power generating fabric.

Power generating fabric.

The Iofit Smart Shoe for golfers

The Iofit Smart Shoe for golfers

Nike’s Anti-Clog cleats recently introduced us to the idea of adaptive polymers. Plastics that can react to their environment to alter their performance. The Anti-Clog system stops mud from sticking to the bottom of the shoe when things start to get messy out there. Vibram, a name synonymous with the underside of shoes, have recently been showing off their ‘Arctic Grip’ non-slip soles – a good option if those crampons are cramping your style. Using new polymers and processing techniques the soles will grip to wet ice, like rubber to concrete. Perhaps the same idea can be worked into hydrophobic, water-repellent fibres – an adaptive synthetic filament that can repel the raindrops, with all the engineering capabilities of a high-tech weave. Nike’s Lunarepic Flyknit Shield took the crazy step of waterproofing a knitted upper by adding a DWR coating, which over time is likely to need a touch-up.

Nike Anti-Clog Cleat

Nike Anti-Clog Cleat

3D printing is slowly becoming a footwear reality with shoes like adidas’ Futurecraft 3D, but what about 3D scanning? The idea of downloading a shoe and printing it off at home is plausible, although at this point seems like little more than a novelty. On the flip-side, brands are moving towards autonomous, small scale production – as demonstrated by the adidas Speedfactory – which would be the perfect arena for this kind of foot-mapping technology. Imagine having your foot scanned while the computer generates an ideal fit-model to run through the machines. Voila, the perfect fit.

adidas CEO Herbert Hainer at the Speedfactory

adidas CEO Herbert Hainer at the Speedfactory

Of course, all of this innovation tends to come at a cost. The environmental impacts of new tech have often gone unnoticed until a little too late. Fortunately, we’ve learned a few lessons from our mistakes and sustainability is a much bigger part of the development process now. Recycled materials, localised manufacturing, waste reduction, energy efficiency – there’s a lot to consider when it comes to looking after the environment. Recently adidas showed us their Biofabric Futurecraft, a shoe made from a biodegradable artificial spider silk named Biosteel. Right now there are companies producing biodegradable polymers that are extremely similar to EVA, in that they can undergo thermoplastic and foaming processes. Doing away with the hard decision of what to do with your old shoes, soon you might be able to chuck them on the compost heap and they’ll end up helping your plants grow.

Biosteel up close

Biosteel up close

adidas Futurecraft Biofabric

adidas Futurecraft Biofabric

The murky horizon of sneaker tech is hard to make out but we know we’re heading in the right direction. With so many areas to improve on, the shoes of the future are sure to change the game. We can’t wait to see what’s next!

Material Matters is our weekly tech section, where we take a peek behind the mesh curtain and break down the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Dye and Colour, Ripstop Fabric and Camo.

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