Francis Bitonti Interview: 3D Printed Shoes Design Process

We spoke with multidisciplinary designer, Francis Bitonti, about two 3d printed footwear projects.  Specifically, how each project came about and what design tools were used in the process.  In both instances, algorithms were used to generate the 3d geometry for the shoes.

INTERVIEWER

How did the “Molecule” shoes come together?

FRANCIS BITONTI

It was an accidental project. We were working with Stratasys (their Israel office) because I wanted to see if we could print from a bitmap to get a smooth gradient from one material to another material. After doing some test objects with them for a while, I met some people from Adobe who were starting to develop tools for a new Adobe package. I showed them what we were doing and they liked it, so when it came time to release the package, they commissioned me as a designer to showcase the software using color gradient. The idea was we’d have different models of the shoe in exhibition format, each with different a material texture and color destruction; we ended up making only one of them.

INTERVIEWER

What was the design process with software like?

BITONTI

A mess. Especially when I was starting, I didn’t have workflows that made sense. Now, it’s really easy, it’s a machine: we have someone on the team who does all the JavaScript, and someone to do all the materials. Originally, we had this makeshift way of processing STL files into bitmaps, we had some crude tools for doing blending and mixing operations with those bitmaps, which all made files that were huge. I think the final shoes were a couple of terabytes. It took us two days to upload them.

INTERVIEWER

What specific moves did you have to do to mitigate the patchwork software techniques?

BITONTI

The first step was generating the shoe. Each pixilated shape started as a rhombus with eight faces. I had something so big I couldn’t export it, so we then had to build some tools to export it. We ended up exporting it as stacks of images for each layer (thousands and thousands of JPEGs). Next, we wrote an application that would load in each of those images and blur them into another image by some percentage each step to create a new stack of images that would have to be converted into what the Connex would read as machine code. After iterating through billions of galaxies of pixels and converting them into instructions, we were left with huge text files, which we sent to printing.

INTERVIEWER

Did you test any of these on a MakerBot?

BITONTI

Yes, though our workflow always ends up being one six-by-six swatch because we never have enough time.

INTERVIEWER

So the machine and material was supplied by Stratasys?

BITONTI

We could’ve never done this without working with them.

INTERVIEWER

And this was specifically for ICONICS?

BITONTI

Yes, there’s really no other way to make those.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s talk about the United Nude shoe.

BITONTI

This one wasn’t that much of a headache. It was United Nude, 3D Systems, and Studio Bitonti. The project started when we were doing a jewelry collection and I emailed Ren Koolhaus about a rendering of a shoe I made. When he got to New York, I showed him and his team decided to collaborate with us on that shoe. Honestly, it wasn’t really a big deal; everybody was really good at what they were doing. The concept was to do an edition of eight with the heel algorithmically generated and the uppers traditionally made, and we were going to produce them on demand, made to measure. So 3D Systems printed it and did the gold plating, United Nude’s factory did the rest of the assembly, and it went out. It worked: the shoes are strong, you could wear them, there are no problems with them.

INTERVIEWER

So the heels were 3D printed and the other additions to the shoe were from United Nude?

BITONTI

Yes. That’s what they do – they’re really good at it.

INTERVIEWER

What specific software workflow was done with this? Were you able to test out iterations by printing?

BITONTI

We had a lot of iterations. The software workflow was a Java output that we made. What would happen was the designer in the studio would model the design of the heel, which would then load into the output to be generated and exported into a print. Our iterations for this were mostly around the ranges, which is something we’ve been doing more of latterly because we’ve been building more customizers for people. It’s really interesting because you might setup some kind of system that could generate a bunch of material, but your customer may not want that, so we’ve been trying to figure out how we restrict those spaces to optimize the user experience.

INTERVIEWER

Are you talking about limiting parameters when it comes to customization?

BITONTI

Yes, because it’s often just way too much. It’s more than what most people want to do.

INTERVIEWER

How many other projects are like this?

BITONTI

It’s pretty unique. We did a pair of sunglasses this year that are going to be sold in a similar way. 3D printing is pretty expensive, so a lot of what we’ve worked on has been pretty conceptual.

INTERVIEWER

So it all boils down to price?

BITONTI

For consumer products it does. If you were working on a jet engine, it’s a different story, but when you’re talking about a shoe, it’s different. It’s not an issue, however, with luxury goods, which is why, early on, I tried to position myself there because I figured I wanted to work with these materials and this technology and the margins here would let us do that. People are also willing to pay for that novelty and early adoptions. It’s a niche market. Yet, if I was making walking shoes, your price might swing people one way or another.

2017-05-31T08:15:31+00:00 May 30th, 2017|3D Printing, Interview|