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November 27, 2019

Local for Local Footwear – Final Project Update

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Researcher John Bondoc reflects on Local for Local Footwear Project:

Searching through my hard drive for suitable images for my final post for Living Labs, I got to reflect on the wandering journey this research project has been. The results of my research were not at all what I had envisioned. As an experienced designer, I am accustomed to final design solutions that diverge from an initial vision but never have I been this humbled and undressed by a project. In retrospect, the issues I was most concerned with, specifically localized manufacturing and sustainability, are issues so full of dependencies and complications that they become impossible to solve. Sustainability and social responsibility in design are attached to societal and individual moral standards that are constantly evolving. To deal with these Wicked Problems, one must fight design paralysis and charge forward, losing and learning along the way. 

Below is a summary of the last few months of my research and a note about what’s next. In other words, a shortlist of wins distilled from a much longer list of losses – then a pledge to fight on.

Material Research, Flexing and Rolling Wood

Back in July, we were experimenting with wood veneers and generative design programs to come up with a solution for getting wooden sandals to flex or at least roll in a way that is beneficial to footwear.

I consulted with researchers at UBC Wood Science, who were gracious enough to host me and give me some advice on what to do and where to look. We talked about wood grain and how it varies between species. We also spoke about grain orientation and how to cut veneers from a tree for the purposes of our sandal project. Everyone came up with great ideas- enough to start three other projects!

In the end, I just needed to hack and experiment and come up with something that worked very specifically for Local to Local Footwear and its constraints. What worked best to use a veneer sandwich of birch and Douglas fir, with each layer 1.5mm in thickness with their grains oriented in three directions (toe to heel and in 45 degrees in both directions). We then glued the veneers together and pressed for 24 hours. This resulted in a structure that bends in one direction better than the other and also returns to shape when released. This wood-based solution on its own ended up being too thin for wear and split when the wearer stepped on something like a stone or a curb. We then used a thicker piece of wood to protect the laminated veneer, and cut channels or kerfs in an irregular pattern to allow for flex and to distribute the force of the flex in multiple directions.  Straight channels caused the veneer layer to fold and snap because they focused the energy of the fold in the direction of the channel. The final irregular kerf pattern also had to account for the spacing of holes as well as the lashing we were using to attach our milled rubber bottom unit.  

GGETA

When we were looking into using solely wood for our sandals this past summer, we were inspired by Geta, the wooden Japanese platform sandals. At the same time, I was experimenting with a generative design software called Forté created by a grad student at Cornell studying human-computer interaction.

Out of this convergence came about the idea of GGETA: generative Geta project.

I believe the point of Forté is not to come up with the most robust engineering solutions but rather to study how designers could use a program like this in their practices. The software asks the designer to make a lot of decisions a designer when using the program – I didn’t feel as threatened as I thought I would.  I feel there’s so much room for variability in its use that every designer would come up with something unique. Here’s how it works: you feed the program a design and tell it where the major forces are (such as gravity and placement of loads). The program will then optimize the design by trimming away unnecessary material and adding structure where needed. Using sliders, the user of Forté can also specify material thickness and similarity to the original input. The results are delivered in 2D, so it still requires a bit of creativity to figure out how to translate to use the results to 3D.

Making a GGETA using software such as Forté is not straightforward at this moment, but the 2D results have been very interesting. I love how unexpected the forms are. If you’re a designer comfortable navigating your Mac with Terminal and can install MatLab and Python, you should give Forté a try. There’s also still a bit of finesse involved designing with the nature of wood (species, grain, moisture) but I’ve learned to accept that working with wood is more of a conversation with the material rather than a confrontation.

Exploring Other Materials

In addition to working on the challenge of using wood bottoms, we also designed a rubber bottom. The design of this rubber bottom was its own very unique challenge because the final solution had to accomplish a number of things:

  1. the bottom unit had to work for all sizes, 
  2. the design should visually support build instructions,
  3. the design should enable the building of the sandal with simple tools,
  4. the design should be optimized for cutting on our CNC for speed and material use. 

This project ended up being a very lengthy diversion but our CNC design skills progressed during this time. The efficiency of our toolpaths went from over an hour mill time per side to 18 minutes with a smaller bit to boot. The rubber bottom can be used by anyone with some decent hand skills using found materials and tools one will find in a decent toolkit. We were successful in completing a DIY sandal kit that we will end up selling online.

Conclusion: Key Findings on Creating a Sustainable Product

Throughout the project, we recorded observations about creating locally manufactured and sustainable product:

  • Sourcing sustainable raw materials was challenging – manufacturers were mostly business to business, their minimum quantities were usually very high, or they didn’t want to talk to start-ups or private citizens at all.
  • We also found sustainable products or processes either didn’t really exist or weren’t as sustainable as we thought. 
  • Working with re-purposed materials was difficult for a multiplicity of reasons. Because of the variability of the physical characteristics of the material, running sewing or CNC machines was not ideal.   It was also often uncertain if you could get more of the same material.  Other times,  material was dirty and no one wanted to touch it. We found that it is very toxic to mill recycled rubber, which meant recycled rubber was no longer a viable option for most people.

People are understandably hesitant to compromise performance and durability for sustainability’s sake. In the REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE paradigm of sustainable consumption, it is important to create a product that is long-lasting and useful. As a start-up, competing with larger companies is very difficult. Lower volumes and new processes often result in a less-polished product. Without volume, it’s easy to fall into the ‘crafting/ craft-maker’ category, meaning the well-intentioned product cannot gain wide-spread adoption. This is an interesting paradox in the contemporary ‘sustainable locally manufactured start-up’: to create desirable, valuable and durable product local creators must leverage high volume or substantial investment to be relevant. Compromise in the ideals of the local sustainable start-up or compromise on behalf of the consumer may be needed for this type of start-up to be successful.

Local for Local: Community Building

The Local for Local Footwear project started as a research vehicle but also as a pilot Community Contribution Corporation. We wanted to test the feasibility of creating numerous small community-creation hubs meant to serve their surrounding communities by providing a space for interaction, supporting the creation of community identity, and as a means of resource conservation and travelled to Prince George in February 2019 and again in September 2019 to test the feasibility of this ambition.

Initially, in Spring 2019, we entertained the idea of creating a retail pop-up. As our manufacture research progressed and we got to connect with Prince George community further we ended up pivoting our plans.  This decision was based on a few factors-  the most deflating was news of significant job losses at the wood mills in the surrounding area. The mills are major drivers of the local economy.  While at Prince George for a research trip, we got feedback from our local project partners that it may be more beneficial to encourage entrepreneurship by teaching relevant skills or technology rather than attempting to sell a product into the community.

The community building capstone for Local for Local happened at the MakerLab at Two Rivers Gallery. We participated in three community events that took place over the course of three days this past September: 1) a maker workshop for students in grades 6 and 7 designed to expose students to new technologies, 2) a sandal-making workshop for members of the Gallery staff, 3) a makers night talk during a to show people our project and talk about our approach to using a consumer-grade CNC for rapid prototyping. My partner Brett wrote an article on Medium about his thoughts on the student workshop. Both the sandal-making workshop and talk went well, we got a lot of useful feedback on our sandal design and we met great people. The community of Prince George is rich with talented artists, craftspeople, engineers, and technicians it was an honour to be able to hold my talk at Two Rivers and to have so many turn out to participate.

What’s next?

Many thanks to Living Labs at Emily Carr University of Art and Design for hosting this project and investing their time, resources, and trust into the Local for Local footwear project.

My team and I limp off, licking our wounds, and patching our egos.  I truly believe that in every loss there is a learning. For every wrong turn, we acquire a better map of where to go.

Keep an eye out for us: we’re Saturna Outdoor Research CCC, our website will be up soon. In the meantime, you can get a hold of me at John.Bondoc@Saturna.studio

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