3D Printing Technology Creates the Ultimate Customized Toe Pad

Posted by on 09.07.2014

We have all heard about the remarkable technology that is 3D printing. We hear about it’s impact in medicine, construction, aerospace, manufacturing, and much more. It’s possibilities seem endless. But have you thought about how 3D printing could impact your dancing? Cornell student Jenna Witzleben has. Under the tutelage of her Professor, Dr. Hod Lipson, Ms. Witzleben decided to create the ultimate customized toe pad for her pointe shoes.

Through her paper, “Rethinking the ballet shoe: 3D Printing for dance performance enhancement,” Ms.Witzleben described her process, which involved making a mold of her foot then converting it into a digital file using a CT scanning machine.  She then printed a 3D image of the clay mold in materials with different stiffnesses to find the right material that was most comfortable to wear.

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Ms. Witzleben sought to create even more customization, in the form of toe support.  She added a harder material to create toe splints in the “front of the first three toes and underneath the first four toes.”

So what were the results? Jenna chats with me about her dance background and the findings of her experiment.

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RK: Tell us about your dance background.

JW: I started dancing when I was about 5 years old at the Dance Studio on Carmen Road in Guilderland, NY. I danced there until I graduated high school, taking jazz, tap, and ballet classes. At the studio, girls interested in pointe can start pre-pointe in 6th grade, doing strengthening exercises until our dance teacher, Miss Barb, deemed us ready to get our pointe shoes. I got the “go ahead” when I was in 7th grade, about a year and a half after starting pre-pointe. I worked hard for those beautiful shoes. After meeting other dancers on campus here at Cornell, I realize now that our studio was not very ballet-intensive compared to other studios. It was more about having fun and learning new things as opposed to outputting talented technical dancers (very few alumni go on to be professional). We only had pointe class once a week.

Now I am a member and Vice-President of Pandora Dance Troupe here at Cornell, where we choreograph and perform dances typically in the contemporary/lyrical/jazz realm, but occasionally trying things like hip hop or character dancing. We have two performances each school year – one at the end of each semester.

RK: You mention in the beginning of your paper that few pointe shoe companies, such as Gaynor Minden, have tried to embrace technology in the production of their pointe shoes.  Do you think there is a reason that this has not been embraced across the ballet community and do you think this may change in the future?

JW: One reason I think some “high tech” ballet shoes have yet to be adopted is purely due to lack of knowledge. I remember going to get fitted for shoes and receiving a recommendation for Bloch’s or Grishko’s. Shoes like Gaynor Mindens or Capulet’s Juliet must have either been not available in store or the shoe fitters just weren’t encouraged to share the information about them. The other reason that I have considered is pride.

Lastly, a legitimate concern with some of these shoes with added or engineered materials in the box is whether the tactile feedback is still there. If you can’t feel the floor at all because there’s too much “stuff” in the box, that obviously could cause issues. I’d hope that this would change in the future, and that personalized/customized pointe shoes would become a standard that all ballet shoe companies incorporate into their lines – particularly if we can use 3D printing to create customized shoes, not just inserts for shoes.

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The molds that were turned into a digital file for the 3D printer.

RK: Can you tell us about the machine that you used to print these inserts?  What material options does it allow for?

JW: The machine that we used to print the inserts on is called an Objet Connex500. It is a highly advanced, industrial 3D printer (very different from the consumer desktop 3D printers that are becoming popular nowadays). It prints high resolution plastic parts. The main basic materials that we have for this printer are TangoPlus, FullCure, and Vero (as described in the paper), where TangoPlus is a soft, rubber-like plastic and FullCure and Vero are hard, rigid plastics. Additionally, there is a mode where you can print in multiple materials, allowing for not only the use of two separate materials in one part, but also different combinations of hard and soft within the different sections. This is what allowed for creating the insert which was 100% TangoPlus in the exterior with 45% VeroBlack “splints” as well as the 45% FullCure 55% Tango box prototype that was also mentioned in the paper. So in conclusion this particular printer allows for plastic printing of different levels and combinations of rigidity or flexibility.

RK: When you made the mold did you go up on pointe? Or did you create the mold in a standing position?

JW: I created the clay mold in standing position. I was afraid that going up en pointe would cause my toes to bend and create a pocket in the mold, defeating the purpose. For the 3D scans, I had my foot pointed barefoot with tape around my knuckles to prevent the toes from curling. However, this process itself can be customized based on the particular dancers issues and desires. For example, I’m sure not all dancers have my issues where the toes tend to curl when pointing the foot.

RK: Do you think the inserts would have failed had 3D printing not allowed for a combination of soft and hard materials?

JW: I definitely think one of the strongest aspects of the insert is the combination of soft and hard materials. I tried making them out of a rigid plastic (the Nylon prototypes mentioned in the paper) and they were so rigid I couldn’t even get them on my foot, let alone comfortably dance in them. Theoretically you could make a 100% soft insert based on a mold or a scan, but the issue here, as I mentioned in the paper, is that soft materials can deform and compress pretty easily. This limits the support you can actually get from the insert. Though it may still be an improvement from the toe pads on the market because the geometry is designed to fill up the space in the box perfectly, the give of the soft materials could still allow some bending and deflection.

RK: Have you worked with an orthopedic doctor or physical therapist to get their thoughts on support from the kinesiology point of view?

JW: I have not worked with an orthopedic doctor or physical therapist to get their thoughts. That is one of the many things that could be done with this project. What I’ve done is really just a first step.

RK: Can you describe your experience dancing with these inserts?

JW: The inserts created somewhat of a suction in the shoe, which made me feel very lifted and supported. The geometry combined with the reduced compressive deformation due to the VeroBlack splints greatly reduced bending at the knuckles of the toes, which was always an issue for me considering I have very uneven toes. At the same time, there was not too much pressure or thickness from the added material, so I still had great tactile feedback and could feel the floor adequately enough.

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The final product.

RK: How practical would this be for a dancer? What would you estimate the total price would be for a consumer if this were to be put into production? Do you think there is a way to avoid the clay mold in the future?

JW: With more experimenting with scanning technologies, there is potential for use of perhaps an MRI or something where you could get a scan of your foot inside the shoe and then create the mold digitally without the clay model. I think even with the clay, it’s not impractical. If someone were to make a company out of this, and had the scanning and printing systems readily available, the process could be condensed down to a couple days. It only takes 10 minutes of the dancer’s time to create the mold, maybe a little longer to discuss material and customization options with the dancer, then the rest is just drying, smoothing, scanning, and printing time. Once the initial CAD model is created, unless the dancer grows, changes her needs regarding material/support, or changes her shoes, the same model can just be reprinted as needed. Thus cost-wise, I could see it costing an initial $150-$200 to get the mold and CAD file, but then only cost $70 of material for any prints after that first visit, and continuously decreasing as the price of 3D printed materials decreases.

RK: Would you be looking for dancers to test these inserts on in order to collect data for future work?

JW: Personally, I am unsure what my future with this project will be. I may switch paths and try something new for my senior design project. However, regardless of whether or not it will be me, or someone else continuing this research, I would highly recommend looking for other dancers to test the inserts. Just talking to some of the dancers in my troupe at Cornell showed me that there are a lot of different feet issues that are very specific to each dancer. For this product to be successful, it would need to be able to address those various issues in some fashion.

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If you would be interested in getting in touch with Jenna, please email your information to rebecca@tendusunderapalmtree.com.

 

3 Comments

  1. Hey,
    I would love the opportunity to get in touch with you Rebecca King. Perhaps by email? Amazing work!
    Thanks

  2. Dear Jenna,
    It is nice to have a genius in among the family members. Congratulations on your fabulous work.

  3. This is so inspiring and awesome to me. I am a college freshman and I danced ballet for 14 years, pointe for 3 of those years. I am a biology major, and this article reminds me of the potential I have as a student with a university’s resources and my ingenuity. As a dancer I am also excited to see technology integrated with ballet. Very cool idea to 3D print individualized toe pads and great article. 🙂

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