By  on June 13, 2006

NEW YORK - The world of product prototypes — so essential to the footwear design process — has become more colorful in the last year.

Reebok, now part of Adidas, is one of several footwear companies to use technology that makes 3-D product parts in colors that reflect a designer’s vision more accurately than was previously possible. Until five months ago, Reebok’s prototype-making machine could create 3-D models in monochrome only, using a process called 3-D printing.

Now, with the addition of a wide palette of colors, “people are excited,” said Paul Bates, director of advanced process engineering, Reebok International, Canton, Mass. “It’s a whole other measurement when color comes into play. It affects people far more than I expected. They are more emotional about it.”

Advances in rapid prototyping could also affect jewelry making and custom footwear in the future, perhaps cutting costs or speeding delivery.

A 3-D product prototype is an essential communication tool around which design, development, sales and marketing people rally before finalizing a style. New ideas may begin as a sketch on a cocktail napkin before they are converted to 3-D models on a computer, but until a concept takes physical form, it’s hard for most people to grasp, and that can delay decisions.

Three-dimensional printing is one of several manufacturing processes that fall into the larger family of rapid prototyping. “Rapid prototyping is a way to create a three-dimensional part in a quick manner,” said Frances Bryant, a research assistant at the Virtual Reality & Rapid Prototyping Lab at the University of Missouri-Rolla. “Instead of setting up fixtures, tools, etc., in a factory to create a model, everything is done with a computer program and a machine that can make a part on demand in a relatively short time.”

For complete coverage, see WWD ExecTech in tomorrow's issue of WWD.

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