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Footwear’s Future

Published: 03rd Mar 2015

Considering the future of upper materials in the footwear industry, Phillip Nutt looks at the transference and suitability of developments in the military and sports footwear sectors for industrial use.

A good shoe dog will always claim his or her craft is a one of a kind product need, with its own special approaches to design and method of production. There is a lot to be debated when it comes to the historical expertise that supports that notion, and I for one am not going to disagree.

The hands and feet are very similar in structure and have similar functional problems, but the hands do not have to support the weight of the human body. Industrial footwear has very specific tasks to satisfy and those tasks will vary according to the specific functional needs of the job they are intended for.

Obviously the feet need protection and defining what types of protection are needed is a whole essay, especially if one is to cover all of the possible occupational hazards that are encountered in an everyday working environment.

As I have written many times, giving all of the credit for the subject matter to my old mentor John Thornton, author of the Textbook of Footwear Manufacture , the basis of a well designed product needs more than just good materials. The first element of necessity is a well-defined analysis of the purpose of the product and what it needs for performing its task efficiently and safely.

Regardless of the category or type of consumer, the occupational activity has to be studied thoroughly. For far too long, the industrial footwear sector has relied on the upstart performance sport shoe industry to inspire developments for this industry.

While research institutes like SATRA, the Shoe and Allied Trades Research Association, have played a great role in developing testing procedures and establishing quality standards for key components, I have not, as an industry observer, seen much effort from this industry to develop its own biomechanical studies of what is needed to improve the performance of our various occupational needs.

This comment may rile some established brands, but I am simply being provocative to create more examination of why so little innovation actually comes out of the Industrial category itself.

Industrial footwear, no matter its form of protection, needs a good solid grounding in the biomechanical functions of the human foot and how we offer solutions. We should not simply rely on the way that performance athletic footwear needs are satisfied.

I make this bold statement with good intent. Industrial footwear, like military footwear, utilises a full working day of needs, day in and day out. On the other hand, performance athletic wear in the main is for dealing with stresses that at the most are created for a few hours daily for super athletes. Most pro teams even practice in different footwear and have a selection of shoe bottoms for differing surfaces and weather conditions. Similarly, their streetwear fashion versions that are adopted by the millions of fans who idolise them should not be construed as in any way job fitted - I have seen street athletic wear worn for some crazy activities that I cannot imagine were envisaged by their makers.

I personally get quite upset when I see fashion trade magazines try to explain why athletic styling is so good for all occupations. If it is so well designed, why then are so many star athletes being injured all the time?

Good design must relate to the functional needs of the specific activity. The elements that go into technical design should be more than exterior surface presentation.

The choice of materials is a major factor in good design, and while material producers do a good job of updating known technology, it is only now that leading edge manufacturers are thinking of three-dimensional moulding properties as the future of mass production sheet materials. This is quite ironical when one considers that leather, for over two millennial, has had such a property.

When it comes to shoe construction, as Thornton’s third leg of good design states, much more innovation has come from the ‘injectable’ compounds than from the natural materials department.

This article is themed towards new upper materials, but to look forward one must first look back and examine what has worked and hasn’t worked over the centuries.

Looking back

In the past the controlling factors were availability and suitability and one can see how various cultures used what local materials were available to them as this was reflected in their ethnic footwear. Ironically, in today’s global world some of those natural resource materials are now being used by western brands, e.g. natural wool and felt inner linings and jute and hemp for textile uppers and webbing.

Leather continues to dominate as the material of choice even if, as a result of globalisation, some nations with low labour costs have to import their leathers from far away places.

The characteristics of leather, particularly cowhide, still remain the basic formula for what constitutes the best properties of a good shoe upper. As the material of choice for quality crafts and high-end global brands, however, top quality leather is now an expensive material to produce.

Today’s giants of consumer goods, including footwear manufacturing, are acquiring tanneries and upper stitching plants to ensure that they have a solid supply of readymade ‘shells’ for their production needs.

In the performance athletic business, synthetic uppers rule, appealing to a whole new generation who have only known ‘plastics’ as a cool outer-shell product packaging material.

The future

Athletic shoes represent the future direction of mass footwear coverings. Now major brands have products retailing in excess of £100, which are all synthetic with welded seam uppers, dimensionally moulded surface detailing, and breathable synthetic shell interiors. Soles and midsoles are also moulded units with the compounds selected for their functional qualities.

More and more athletic brands also now offer industrial footwear collections, so can we logically expect many of their technical advancements to also make their way in to these additional industrial categories?

The future of upper technology, to my way of thinking, rests with synthetics. These are materials that can be three dimensionally pre-shaped to speed up lasting and sole bottoming processes. In this regard I have seen various types of synthetic ‘felts’ that are totally contour mouldable, and similar developments that are non woven poromerics and used for multiple layer cutting. I have also seen Japanese developed technology for synthetic upper materials that can be made up as shoes in a natural shade and then the finished shoes can be colour dyed and finished according to ‘just in time’ merchandising needs - seriously reducing the ‘losses’ occurred from ‘dead stock colours’. Such new approaches are a reality today and, again, if one looks at history it is not really that new – as Benneton pioneered the concept of post-production dying of virgin wool knitted sweaters back in the 1970s.

Synthetics also render themselves suitable as upper materials for various forms of repellent and resistant technologies. It is not just water repellent qualities of which I speak, but also oil, chemical and fire resistant features, as well as anti-static and insulating benefits.

The new woven meshes and nylons are also now being developed in such a way that they can not only be die cut, but they can be heat sealed at key areas and edges for greater sewing and assembly efficiencies.

Welding versus stitching will certainly come to the fore in this next decade and the industrial footwear category will have to look at that potential for efficiencies of upper preparation. In addition to welding, look for new skeletal adhesive applications that render certain areas of products breathable while others are closed to foreign matter or ventilation.

In lining materials, much headway has also been made. Now we no longer think of a lining as being a one strata choice. Now one can literally build a customised layering of needs, in a similar way as one orders a foot-long submarine sandwich. The future is bright for those combiners who can offer such resources for industrial footwear producers.

The birth of the membrane has given rise to a whole host of pizza choice combos for functional footwear needs.

Space technology has made our materials thinner, without losing any of their functional characteristics. Today we can control thermal conductivity and breathability by the way we build our sandwich of lining materials.

The foot has differing needs according to the activities it must endure, such as temperature extremes:

• Extreme heat creates perspiration and we need inner surface linings to wick (draw) the perspiration into the fibres and through a membrane to an outer shell for water vapour dispersal

• For extreme cold heat retention is important - today we have excellent natural and synthetic products that can trap the warm air given off by the foot and use these warm pockets of air for heat

• Great advancements have been made in synthetic felts that can be laminated and pre-shaped (for insoles) or ankle protection

• Battery miniaturisation has now advanced heating coil insertion into insoles for cold weather usage

• Heat loss and heat insulation through the base of the boot is also something that needs attention as we spend more and more time in extreme hot and cold climates – be it for exploration or warfare

Now greater attention is being paid to removable foot-bed insoles and as for inner linings, many are custom sandwiches of feature materials that wick, dry quickly and insulate.

The role of customised, low cost, anatomically correct foot-beds for workers who are on their feet all day will grow in use as we adapt known technology from comfort and wellness footwear developments.

Foot health

While on the subject of insoles, we spend very little time on the role that foot health plays in keeping a worker or soldier active.

Both warm and cold conditions can play havoc with the foot. Heat can render the skin’s surface softer and more susceptible to blister development, which for diabetics can turn into serious health issues.

Extreme cold can foster chilblain problems and devastating frostbite consequences. Much today is made of very thin heat reflective space age developed foil materials, which can also be sandwiched between linings.

Anti-fungal treatments on lining materials is a necessary feature for some extreme weather conditions, as well as common problems such as athlete’s foot and dermatitis.

The sports industry is full of speciality removable foot-bed insoles, many of which are branded items and sold as accessories. It may be just me, but I don’t see a vast array of similar products aimed at industrial occupations. Surely there must be an opportunity for multiple density insole structures that offer gel like shock absorbent pads in combination with deodorising or perspiration absorbing laminates?

In terms of moulded footwear such as wellington boots, many lining materials as described for leather boot trends can apply.

More and more injected boots utilise skeletal moulding structures and therefore can offer shafts of non plastic materials such as neoprene and other foam laminates. In addition, intricate moulding knowhow is now so advanced that one way ventilation channels can aid in a better control of thermal conductivity for the wearer.


All in all, new materials offer the industrial and safety boot sector a great opportunity to develop even more highly effective job related features. This is no longer just a case where industry in past decades grudgingly offered foot protection for its tireless and unskilled labourers. These workers are now gainfully employed operating highly expensive and intricate equipment. Now much attention is afforded to ensuring that such workers are well protected from injury, the likes of which could put them out of work for months or even permanently.

The future is about now making such skilled people also comfortable during the time they are employed. It's a new era where a lot of knowhow can be transferred or adapted from even the wellness market and interpreted for industrial and military needs.

Published: 3rd Mar 2015 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Phillip Nutt’s family background in work boots, along with Northampton’s reputation for Goodyear Welts and Doc Martens, exposed him to many of the in depth basics of industrial footwear.