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New Balance takes custom in new direction

| Tuesday, March 12, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

New Balance is taking customization much further than choosing colors or other aesthetic details: The athletic brand is introducing a track-specific running shoe that uses 3-D printing to create a plate on the sole of the shoe that is supposed to enhance performance with every step.

Athletes are measured on a sensitive track to gauge the direction their foot travels — forward or back, left or right — and how it moves; 100 sensors are placed on an insert in the shoe to measure pressure at different points; and a motion-capture system — like the ones used for video games and movies — adds stride and broader movement into the equation. Based on the biomechanical data, custom spike plates, the part of the shoe that actually connects with the ground, are created.

The new process was first reported by Wired magazine last week.

Right now, this process is for New Balance elite, sponsored athletes, but, said Katherine Petrecca, the company's business manager of studio innovation, that will change with time. “The technology is early and our implementation is still really in a very early phase, but you can envision as the technology improves and capacity increases — and cost comes down — the audience who will benefit from customization will just grow and grow and grow.”

Some top runners helped in the development: 1500-meter World Champion gold medalist Jenny Barringer Simpson, 2012 U.S. Olympian Kim Conley, 2012 British Olympian Barbara Parker and All-American runner Jack Bolas.

A bonus? The addition of the athlete's signature to the plate as if they were signing an autograph, noted Chris Wawrousek, studio innovation lead designer.

It wasn't singularly demand or technology that drove the development of the technique, said Wawrousek, studio innovation lead designer, it was the idea that the industry is at a watershed moment, thanks to demand and technology. “It feels like a new industrial revolution in some ways. We're no longer limited by scale to produce a product, and customization can be totally practical,” he said.

The athletes themselves were another factor. “It almost never happens that you put an athlete in a shoe, and they don't have some comment about it,” Wawrousek added. “In this case, we can have an athlete say, ‘This one particular spike is in the wrong place. Can you move it?' In this case, we can say, ‘Yes!”

Samantha Critchell is an AP Fashion Writer.

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