Three months ago, I signed up to give a lightning presentation to a Meetup group in San Francisco that focuses on hardware startups. The day before the talk, I was struggling to put into only two minutes the essence of SFT's approach to our product design. Of course, SFT means many things to me, since I'm elbow deep in all the aspects of running the company every day. But for any talk, it's critical to judge your audience's interests and speak to those in particular. So while this is the Bay Area and therefore some non-zero number of my audience would probably be climbers, really, they and I were there to talk about engineering and bringing products to market, not the details of which shoes are best for smearing or toehooking.
The most pertinent thing about SFT, for the Meetup audience, would be a discussion of how we are leveraging digital manufacturing techniques to bring customized shoes to climbers. Because climbing shoes fit so tightly and human feet vary so widely, SFT has had to rethink traditional shoe manufacturing so that our process can accommodate natural variations efficiently (i.e. to bring custom shoes to as many climbers as possible at the least environmental cost). We are pursuing digital manufacturing because we assume that the shoe fits the climber, instead of stuffing climbers into generic shoes.
When people say "digital manufacturing," almost everyone jumps to the idea of 3D printing the whole shoe, but right now (due to the materials available, print time, print volumes, etc.), that's not really feasible. Of course, "shoes" have been 3D printed, but they're stiff sculptures, not engineered tools that complement the wearer's biomechanics. Instead of trying force a product into the requirements of one limited manufacturing process, SFT believes in choosing materials and digital techniques suited to the product’s requirements.
Nike and Adidas' knitted upper method is a great example of leveraging a digitally controlled machine to obviate the need for part tooling. Here, making rule dies for pattern cutting, cutting the patterns out of sheet stock and wasting some of it, and then stitching it all together has been eliminated or minimized. Critically, by eliminating the need for expensive tooling specific to each shoe style and size, knitted uppers can reduce the pressure to mass-produce shoes.
The shoemaking process has many such pressure points where traditional techniques have relied heavily on fixed tooling. For example, lasts are cut in every size (and left and right) for a specific shoe design. Cutting so many lasts can be expensive upfront, so many manufacturers have stopped offering different widths to reduce tooling costs. However, with a parametric last model and a laser cutter, SFT can make quick-turn, durable, and recyclable custom lasts. When a customer places an order, the last model is reconfigured in a couple of minutes to match the critical features of their foot. In another 2 hours, we can complete a last that's ready to build a shoe on. By making our lasts on demand, we aren’t wedded to a precut scale of sizes. By making the lasts quick-turn and recyclable, we can make lasts only when needed, storing the digital information necessary to create them.
Besides the lasts, there are lots of other steps in making climbing shoes which need rethinking to better support customization and to reduce our industry's waste and reliance on outsourced labor. That's the stuff that wakes me up in the middle of the night (luckily there's a whiteboard next to the bed to brainstorm on). SFT's long-term commitment to digital manufacturing is what I wanted to communicate to the people at the hardware meetup. In the process of compiling my thoughts before speaking there, I realized that SFT has a vision, a manifesto, if you will. This vision of what we can give to the climbing community is what drives us forward:
SFT Climbing leverages digital manufacturing techniques to make shoes that fit real feet. We're applying the right technology to each step in the manufacturing process so that we can do what's best for climbers and for the world that we climb in.