After completing his undergraduate qualification, Earl Stewart drew upon his keen interest in shoes & apparel and how they are used to reflect, enhance or mask a personality to study the complexities of mass production and mass customization. Learning about the huge range of materials and processes of mass production gave him an appreciation of the possibilities and limitations of each. Fully supporting the idea of ‘designing for the future you want, not the one you’re in” and learning about the growing application and development of digital technologies in manufacturing, were incentives for Earl to push the traditional manufacturing boundaries of shoes to create products that not only fulfil a complex function, but enrich the owner by incorporating references to individual heritage, memories and desires in the design.
And the design world lives and communicates through online magazines and blogs nowadays. One of these publications is designboom, which published Earl’s XYZ shoe in May 2013. With nearly half a million subscribers to their newsletter and 3.5 million monthly readers this was a huge audience to present to for the first time. And the follow up by other media increased that exposure even more: a week later Gizmodo – part of the Gawker Media Group with 64 million monthly readers – featured another shoe design of his thesis. The same day 3D Printing Industry – with 1.3 million monthly page views and nearly ½ million followers on Google+ – published an article focusing on the practical application of his new concept, bringing his design to the attention of a completely different set of industry professionals.
How does that matter? When Earl approached his current employer for a job application, Nike were happy enough to invite him for an interview without having to hand in a portfolio: already they had been following his online publications and knew all about his strengths, passion and commitment.
As Earl had developed a deeper understanding of his personal connections to his own heritage and physical uniqueness, he wanted to examine the possibilities of incorporating these into mass production. In his Master of Design Thesis ‘XYZ: Customized Complexity’ (2013) he created under supervision by Ross Stevens and Edgar Rodriguez – through his research by composition methodology – a substantial collection of apparel items that explore the potential of digital manufacturing for developing customized products. One of these is the XYZ shoe, which was entered in the New Zealand Best Awards in the Product – Student section in 2013 and won the Silver Award.
“The XYZ shoe …represents the sum of all parts particular to the identity of the individual. Along with biomechanical performance, the shoe seeks to aesthetically reflect the cultural & biological identity of the individual.”
Earl Stewart started his Industrial Design studies at VUW wanting to expand his creativity and tap into the abundant knowledge base – especially in conceptual design – the university is renowned for. The rich cultural environment at VUW not only expanded his technical knowledge, but fostered an increased awareness of cultural and social identities.
The world of 3D printing is expanding at an incredible rate and the printers and materials that Earl used for his research in 2013 have been improved and expanded incredibly since then. Nonetheless a closer look should be taken to see how he achieved his results.
One part of his research focused on the ease and effectiveness of the digital 3D programs and plug-ins available. For the thesis he experimented with Rhinoceros 3D and Grasshopper 3D and found them to be useful tools.
To achieve a high level of customization he required scanning of not just body parts, but the whole body. In his thesis Earl states that accessibility is important to establish feasibility, thus he trialled three available scanning methods: Microsoft Kinect PC (Xbox), Next Engine Laser Scanner and 123D Catch. Even though all yielded reasonable results, each had their deficits, highlighting the need for further development if used as a production tool in the future.
Some of the research models – and the final shoe designs – were printed in-house on VUW’s Objet printer, other material experimentations were printed through a commercial 3D printing company, Shapeways. Researching the different materials illustrates the complexity of translating a computer design into a real three dimensional object.
The in-house printer was a Connex 350 – originally a mono material printer – which was modified to a dual material printer. The modification had been requested by the university and Stratasys had been more than helpful to broaden the research base. With the option of combining two different materials, Earl was able to create a range of polymers that had various degrees of flexibility and strength.
The material range for the Objet/Connex printer at the time was Vero and Tango in basic black, white, greys and translucent. Vero provides rigidity and support, while Tango has rubber-like properties, which are used to achieve flexibility, tear resistance and tensile strength. By changing the proportions of these two components he was able to create within one object a range of materials that fulfilled different functions like providing strong support at the heel and sole and comfortable flexibility when putting the shoe on and walking in it.