Today we just cut on our CNC (computerized numerically controlled) waterjet saw, the last piece of steel, finishing up the molds needed to make the full range of sizes (6.5 to 12) of the new La Vidas. It’s been nearly 100 pieces in all.
We’ve also been using a CNC milling machine that carves with a tool that looks like a drill bit. That’s an impressive machine in its own right, but the waterjet is rather unique in that it cuts with just a stream of water and a little bit of sand, almost any type of material, including steel, up to six inches thick.
CNC waterjet saws are not very common in the U.S., which I think is one of the reasons why 99.99% of molds used to make shoe soles are made in China. Making molds for shoe soles requires not just carving out the shoe sole patterns, but cutting out the basic templates to make the numerous molds (for all the sizes) as well as all the base plates and other tooling. That cutting could be done manually with various big metal cutting tools but a computerized waterjet saw will do it far more efficiently and safely, with an accuracy that no other tool (plus human) can achieve.
A CNC waterjet saw is a rather hefty investment that even the biggest U.S. owned companies, which manufacture their products in China, do not make. China, not the company, owns all the manufacturing equipment used to make whatever product that company sells. The more that U.S. companies make things in China, the more sophisticated manufacturing equipment, like CNC waterjet saws, China owns.
I’m pretty sure we’re the only U.S. owned shoe company that has its own CNC waterjet saw. And I’m also pretty sure that I couldn’t have designed La Vida without it.
Over the last couple years I’ve made numerous prototype molds and tooling pieces that I’d never even think of making if we didn’t have the waterjet saw. In the old days (back when I was working full time as a physician-researcher and part-time with a big athletic shoe company to develop my concepts), I’d sketch out a shoe design that a “design team” would interpret and make another set of drawings. They’d send that set of drawings to China where some poor soul would interpret it and write a 3-D CAD (computer-aided design) program for it so that someone else in China could make the mold for it. After a year or so, we’d get some shoes made (by someone else in China) and sent back to us and then we’d test them. Invariably, the shoes wouldn’t be perfect and we’d have to start the process all over again. We couldn’t try many things because each idea would take about a year to develop and test. This tedious process which most shoe companies are still committed to, is a major reason why, I think, despite all my research, shoes haven’t changed too much in recent years.
It’s all different having your own factory. Instead of trying to describe what I want to someone who tries to describe it to someone else who describes it to yet another person in a different language, I’ve just been drawing what I want in 3-D CAD, cutting the tooling or molds with the waterjet saw and then running them just like they’d be run in production. There’s been very little time or material wasted. Even the failed tooling and molds were recycled back into blank sheets of metal with the help of a local foundry. It’s been a dream come true for the scientist-developer-perfectionist.
I’ve been unafraid to develop exactly what I’ve wanted to develop. Importantly I’ve come up with ideas in manufacturing that have allowed us to do things I’ve always wanted to do in the design, but never could with standard manufacturing practices.
Granted, the CNC waterjet saw is just one component of my 20-year long quest to make the perfect shoe. But today, in its final cut of the final mold for the finished La Vida, I give it a special tribute.