It started with a seed of an idea—actually, it was a tree root and architecture that sparked the creative process—and the need to solve a problem. These structures were the inspiration for Under Armour’s recently released UA Architech: the first performance training shoe to use a 3D-printed lattice midsole.
While hiking one Sunday afternoon, Alan Guyan—director, design and manufacturing innovation, at Baltimore-based Under Armour (UA)—happened upon the inspiration for the design of the 3D-printed shoes.
“The Architech was inspired by manmade objects, architecture, and natural organic shapes,” Guyan says. “The biggest inspiration, however, was tree roots: Some roots are receded into the ground, and then you see them growing upward. That was an area of focus because a tree is holding a lot of weight, and all of its roots provide the structure. So the concept was built around the question, ‘How could we play with a specific structure to build out a unique, custom cushioning platform for footwear?’”
Guyan and his team set out to answer that question for athletes training with multiple exercises: For lifting, they need a heavier shoe, and for running and other activities, they need a lighter shoe. The goal for UA—an innovator in performance footwear, apparel, and equipment—was to create one shoe that was flexible yet stable, with cushioning and support for all types of training.
“The unique thing with the Architech is that we allowed two interlaced structures within each other,” Guyan says. “We’ve created a compelling performance training shoe that actually solves problems, and athletes and consumers are really liking it.”
Liking it, indeed: UA produced a limited run of 96 UA Architech pairs, priced at $299, which sold out quickly.
One factor that makes this shoe stand out is the UA team’s use of generative design software. Generative design uses an algorithm to enable designers and engineers to explore myriad design possibilities generated by the computer, helping them arrive at the final product quicker and often with unconventional geometry. Guyan, an early adopter of generative design, believes that, going forward, the technology will help develop new footwear technologies that are more tailored to the athlete. It will also enable design teams to create lightweight structures and reduce weight in parts.
“The Autodesk Within software allowed us to create these very specialized lattice structures,” Guyan says. “And that’s coming from a single cell to the patterning of those cells. So we were able to try out numerous patterns and numerous spacings of the structures to allow us to test and validate. We were able to do multiple iterations of the same design or multiple designs within a configuration bucket.”
From concept design (created in part with Autodesk Fusion 360) to production, the team churned out many iterations.
“We went through numbers and numbers of lattice designs to lock in on the right one,” Guyan says. “There were a few challenges that we needed to solve. First, is it mechanically viable for cushioning? Second, what’s the overall design look of it? And third, how does it perform after you integrate it into a piece of footwear? If we drop something on it or if we compress it, how fast will this structure rebound? From there, we made a lot of different designs, and we did preliminary tests to flesh out those end results.”
In the two-plus years that UA spent developing the UA Architech, a significant part of that time went into testing—both mechanical and human. More than 80 athletes spent in excess of 120 hours in a gym, beating up the shoes. According to Guyan, UA went through several hundred thousand testing cycles to see if anything or anyone could break the shoe.
“As part of that two-year development, we discovered failure,” he says. “And you know, that’s great! Failure often leads you to find that next pinnacle product or develop that next breakthrough idea. And we did. We hit a home run with the testing because we actually have new testing protocols that resulted from the development of this shoe.”
As the team started getting closer to the final product, the feedback during testing became increasingly favorable. The athletes could go straight from heavy lifting to cross-training and didn’t have to change shoes. The shoes were comfortable yet stable: flexible in the forefoot but rigid in the heel. The testers were not expecting that experience—but they were excited and wanted to know how soon they could get their own pair.
Production, however, was a time-consuming process, especially given the UA Architech’s reliance on 3D printing. Thus far, the 3D-printing market has been focused on prototypes, not mass manufacturing. So current machines are not made for producing at scale. In addition, 3D printing uses a batch-based process, so only a certain number of parts can be manufactured each day.
“Why did we use 3D printing to create this piece of unique footwear?” Guyan asks. “Well, for starters, the lattice structure can only be achieved by 3D printing. And I like the simple fact of just that: To make something that cannot be made by conventional means is very exciting. We can have different correlations of different parts, different types of parts, and different types of structures, all within one composition that allows us to repeat, fail, and then find successes. The other unique thing about 3D printing is that the opportunity for customization is endless.”
UA is the first company to produce 3D-printed shoes for performance training. But some of its competitors—Nike, Adidas, and New Balance—have also used this technique for developing running shoes and cleats. All of these companies are using new technologies to change the way athletes train.
“Everything that bears the Under Armour logo is built on performance,” Guyan says. “Our job is to ensure that the gear we develop works just as hard, if not harder, than the athlete wearing it, to help make him or her better. The UA Architech is no different.”