There’s a lot of pressure on footwear these days — literal and otherwise. Whether sport, casual, safety or dress, shoes must withstand body weight from above, harsh terrain from below, and the elements from all sides, all without sacrificing fashion or comfort. Meanwhile, increased consumer and retailer demand dictates that they should be created sustainably as well.
If that weren’t enough, hyper-competitive athletic footwear comes with additional challenges, and high-tech material innovations are helping companies stand out and stay ahead of the game.
Tackling these challenges and the requisite R&D behind them is BASF Performance Materials, which has a deep commitment to the footwear market. “Our range of materials has been the top choice among many footwear brands like Brooks, Fila and Blundstone, and in addition to selling the products, at times, we collaborate with the folks from different departments such as R&D to understand what they want,” said Minli Zhao, Asia Pacific vice president of consumer industry for BASF Performance Materials in a fireside chat with Sourcing Journal.
Leading the materials charge are BASF’s two proprietary star products — Elastopan and Elastollan — which update traditional PU (polyurethane) and TPU (thermoplastic urethane) and serve as starting points to bring innovative customer projects to fruition.
Elastollan is known for its mechanical strength, abrasion, and slip resistance and can be created with varying grades of hardness, all adding to the material’s versatility for footwear. Soft grades are known for cushioning, medium hardness grades for compact or combination soles, and hard grades for heels and heel tips. Anti-static agents, a requirement for safety footwear, can also be added to Elastollan.
Elastopan is BASF’s polyurethane foam system created for high-performance casual shoes and boots.
The versatile material can be used for insoles, midsoles and outsoles, offering freedom for footwear designers. Additionally, Elastopan is known for resistance to abrasion, hydrolysis, and oil and petrol, all key criteria for safety and working shoes.
BASF also takes pride in being the first to research and study supercritical foam (SFC) technology for footwear manufacturing, leading to experimentation for footwear, sports and leisure applications.
Turning to 3D printing solutions, BASF’s Ultrasint® TPU01 is a multipurpose TPU material for producing high-quality, flexible parts. “Typical applications are sports footwear, orthopedic insoles in which the required properties of shock absorption, energy return, and flexibility that can be specifically tuned by design through additive-based manufacturing,” said Zhao.
No matter how sturdy or flexible the footwear is, consumers and brands are increasingly demanding that they be sustainably produced. “When your buyers think of sustainable footwear, they may only think of shoes made with recycled materials, but BASF can help footwear brands create a truly eco-friendly product,” said Zhao. “Our sustainable portfolio for footwear ensures that materials are free of solvents and heavy metals, produce low emissions and are still versatile. Through that, BASF is capable of creating entirely sustainable footwear that brands can take pride in showcasing to their customers.”
To bring clients into the creation process, BASF launched its Footwear Innovation Center in Taiwan, complementing Footwear Development Centers in Italy and North America. “Here, we demonstrate technical capabilities and create prototypes with customers to determine if the desired design can be realized,” said Zhao. Catering to an in-person or virtual experience, the Center focuses on design, function and creation. There’s even a biomechanics lab and a production hub.