First look: adidas Futurecraft 4D shows the future of footwear design and innovation

Monday May 8th, 2017

In 2015, Adidas unveiled their first 3D-printed shoe, the adidas Futurecraft 3D runner, to a lot of hype. Released in limited quantities to the public last December, it quickly flew off shelves. Following the success of the 3D runner, it didn’t take long for adidas to show off to the public what else they’ve been cooking up in their labs with the next iteration in their Futurecraft series. Teaming up with Silicon Valley-based tech company Carbon, they recently unveiled what could very well be the future of performance shoe design with the adidas Futurecraft 4D.

Carbon, which bills itself as a company that is “working to revolutionize product creation through hardware, software, and molecular science,” uses a process called Digital Light Synthesis to create the unique lattice structure you see on the midsole of the Futurecraft 4D. They use a programmable liquid polymer resin which is then blasted with ultraviolet light through an oxygen-permeable window to set the shape. Once the midsole is printed, its then baked in a forced-circulation oven, which sets off a secondary heat-activated chemical reaction that strengthens the material. It is a complicated but fascinating process, and it’s certainly worth your time to learn more about.

The adidas Futurecraft 4D feels both radically new and familiar at the same time. The upper is made of adidas’s ultra-comfortable Primeknit material. There is a lot of perforation on the upper, so despite the thickness of the material, my feet felt cool even after a long run in warm weather. While there is no visible heel counter, you can feel one woven into the Primeknit. The same Continental rubber you find on many of adidas’s shoes is used for the outsole, so you know you’ll get a good grip no matter what surface you’re running on. At a quick glance, you could very easily mistake the adidas Futurecraft 4D for some sort of uncaged adidas UltraBoost. In fact, nearly every person that asked me what I was wearing thought it was a new uncaged model. However, on closer inspection, they quickly saw that the UltraBOOST midsole was absent and that in its place was something entirely different.

The first thing you notice when you step into the Futurecraft 4D is how springy the shoes feel. This was no surprise, as the midsole lattice immediately pops back into shape after you squeeze it. Parts of the midsole were noticeably firmer than others, while other areas felt soft and flexible. That springy feeling translated to runs as well, as the energy returned on each step wasn’t so different from that of the adidas UltraBoost.

The heel section of the midsole has a considerable amount of cushioning and it tapers off significantly toward the forefoot. Toe off didn’t feel as effortless as it does with the adidas UltraBoost, but overall, the Futurecraft 4D adds a lot of bounce to your step. Heel and mid-foot strikers will really enjoy running in these shoes, but forefoot strikers will find things a bit tougher with the way the midsole cushioning is distributed.

Since the midsole is largely an unknown quantity, as it is a completely new material and it hasn’t been widely tested, one of the biggest questions I had about the Futurecraft 4D was the durability of the midsole. A spokesperson for adidas told me that during a standard 8-week accelerated wear test, which lasted several hundred miles, they did not see changes in the cushioning properties of the midsole. If the midsole of the adidas Futurecraft 4D does indeed last several hundred miles, matching or exceeding that of most running shoes on the market these days, that would be an extremely impressive feat. After logging over 60 miles in the Futurecraft 4D, they seem no worse for the wear and I have little reason to doubt them on their claims.

Weighing in at 11.8 oz, the Futurecraft 4D were definitely on the heavier side for a running shoe. This was a surprise, as they feel a lot lighter on your feet. The three longest runs I attempted in the Futurecraft 4D ranged from nine to 11 miles, and I was able to more or less maintain my half marathon goal pace through two runs with one even exceeding it. When I took these onto a track for speedwork, I felt like I could blaze past everyone around me. One thing that must be noted is that I experienced some minor pain in the arch of my foot after my longest run, but that could be attributed more to my running form than the shoe itself.

Neutral runners should have no issues running in these shoes, but if you over or underpronate, it may not provide the support you need. This was particularly noticeable on a treadmill. While running on pavement or on a track posed no issues, it felt a little unstable running in these shoes at high speeds on a treadmill for the first time. As I got used to running in them, the stability issues subsided, but these would not be my first choice if I was planning on cranking up the speed on a treadmill.

For nearly every run I did with the Futurecraft 4D, I followed up with a similar run in a pair of adidas UltraBoost. If I had to quickly summarize the performance of the adidas Futurecraft 4D, I would call it adidas UltraBoost light for comparison's sake. Although, truth be told, it reminded me of New Balance's Fresh Foam Zante v3, and it probably falls somewhere between the UltraBoost and the Zante in terms of performance and feel. That isn’t to take anything away from the Futurecraft 4D, as we named the adidas UltraBoost our favorite running shoe. It was a step below the UltraBoost in terms of performance and comfort, but I wouldn’t say by that much. To produce something that performs at a comparable level to the adidas UltraBoost is a feat in and of itself.

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Carbon has created a unique programmable resin platform that will eventually allow them to create shoes specifically tailored to your needs. People come in different shapes and sizes, and this may be the first true step toward offering bespoke shoes for consumers. This could help athletes truly get the most mileage out of their shoes.

For the initial run, Adidas released 300 pairs to “friends and family" but they’re aiming to have 5,000 pairs for sale to the public later this year with the goal of having 100,000 pairs produced by the end of 2018. Pricing has not yet been announced, but using the $333 adidas Futurecraft 3D runner as a baseline, these shoes will likely not come cheap.

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Adidas has been on a tear lately and they have a winner on their hands with the Futurecraft 4D. This is footwear innovation unlike anything we’ve seen before, and thanks to their partnership with Carbon, they have created what could very well be the most innovative shoe technology we’ve seen in some time. If they can deliver on their goal of offering custom-built shoes tailored specifically to your feet, it could be a major breakthrough in footwear design.

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