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'Sneakerheads' Get 3D-Printed Option, Thanks to Student Shoe Business
Pennsylvania Ag Connection - 06/12/2018

For every challenge encountered in the process of building a business, Nicholas Unis, a junior in the Smeal College of Business, has relied not only on his own creative ingenuity and determination, but also on the resources and connections Penn State offers to budding entrepreneurs.

Unis, who enrolled at Penn State through the 2+2 Plan -- spending his first two years at Penn State Altoona and finishing at University Park -- is working on developing fully customized shoes using 3D printing technology. The idea stemmed from an interest in footwear -- not just the fashion -- but the construction, materials and also the market.

According to Business Insider, sneakers are a $55 billion global industry, and the market is largely driven by consumers described as "sneakerheads," those who make a hobby of collecting and trading shoes. These are the customers that Unis one day would like to target through his company, UnisBrands LLC.

It's an audience he knows well. Unis got his idea for fully customized footwear from his own experience buying shoes, ripping them apart, repainting them, changing the materials and selling them. He also saw an opportunity to make the shoe-buying experience more personal and fun while working as a part-time sales associate in a shoe store at the mall.

"As people were coming in and not finding exactly what they wanted in size or look, I got the idea to fully customize a pair of shoes," Unis said.

"I actually had a customer who would buy two pairs of shoes because his feet were two different sizes."

While at Penn State Altoona, Unis decided to take his idea and put together a business plan. He took part in the Pechter Business Plan competition, offered through the Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence, and, despite what he would describe as a failed pitch, was able to take the constructive feedback of the judges and re-focus his plan.

"It just wasn't as developed as it needed to be, but the judges helped steer me to where I should be focusing," said Unis.

That year, Unis also scored some feedback from two judges on the popular television show "Shark Tank." The pair came to Altoona as part of the Speaker Series, and listened to Unis' pitch.

"At the time, I just had a hard plastic shoe and a rough wooden printer," he said. "They liked the idea and gave me some very good input."

Armed with constructive criticism and fresh determination, Unis researched how best to proceed. The first step was finding a 3D printer. Large-scale ones were completely out of his price range, and while looking into smaller-scale ones, he realized he could probably just make one of his own. With some online help, he gathered components and went to a manufacturer. Together, they came up with the patent-pending printer Unis uses today.

"I designed the printer to be optimized to print shoes," said Unis. "If you print this material with any normal 3D printer, it's going to jam."

Using CAD software, he designs the custom shoe and implements it into a program which slices the 3D design into thousands of layers that will be printed on his customized 3D printer. From there, the software creates a tool path to deposit material in each layer. The tool path for each layer is then exported to an SD card and put into the printer to fabricate the shoe.

"A 3D printer is essentially a hot glue gun on a router," Unis said. "The software specifies the route that it's going to take. The printer takes a spool of material -- in this case, thermal plastic -- and pushes this material through the motor. It heats up, melts the material, squeezes it out in the layer and moves in layers until complete."

Using CAD software, Nicholas Unis designs a custom shoe and implements it into a program which slices the 3D design into thousands of layers that will be printed on his customized 3D printer. From there, the software creates a tool path to deposit material in each layer. The tool path for each layer is then exported to an SD card and put into the printer to fabricate the shoe.

Nicholas Unis inspecting a prototype of the custom 3D-printed sneakers he designed. His company, UnisBrands LLC, is supported in part by Happy Valley LaunchBox powered by PNC Bank.

In the fall of his sophomore year, Unis gave the Pechter competition another try. This time -- with a product to show and a more developed plan -- Unis was chosen as a finalist. He was granted incubator space at the Sheetz Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence to create detailed descriptions of his business concepts, potential market and likely competitors. In the spring, he presented again and won the competition, taking a $5,000 prize.

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