Apparel & Home Technology

July 1997

" Leather Craftsman Finds New Tool in 3D CAD "




Leather Craftsman Finds New Tool in 3D CAD

Digital Foot Scanner Adds to High Tech Approach

by Jeanette Hye

Port Townsend, Washington- Three-dimensional computer aided design technology has turned a leather craftsman into a high-tech entrepreneur.

Inspired by the increasing sophistication of 3D CAD systems and driven by a desire to build a business on an entirely new manufacturing paradigm, Alan Zerobnick recently launched a more technologically advanced approach to making an selling shoes.

The 51-year-old Zerobnick, who has been selling shoes since he was 14 years old, recently began creating custom-made shoes from measurements gathered using a retail kiosk installed in a Seattle foot doctor's office.

Using a foot scanner equipped with digital cameras, the kiosk allows customers to scan their feet and choose the style of footwear they want Zerobnick's company, Digitoe, to produce.

The kiosk, designed and built by Zerobnick, transmits via eMail the measurements and computerized image here.

Zerobnick then uses his 3D software to create a virtual "shoe last". A last is a model of a persons foot upon which the shoe is built.

"Once I have the information, I use the CAD system to go to a shelf in my electronic workshop and grab pieces of 'electronic wood' to build the last," said Zerobnick.

He points out that creating a 3D last on the computer screen is not a simply a matter of entering the information and waiting for the computer to generate an appropriate shape. The task still requires many of the same skills necessary to hand craft a last, such as knowledge of the foot's anatomy and a flair for design.

Using the CAD system to design the initial last does allow mistakes to be easily corrected and also creates an established pattern to work from, should another last need to be made.

Once the last is designed it is eMailed to a lasting center contracted by Digitoe. While a physical last is being manufactured, Digitoe uses its CAD system to be generated for the shoe leather.

Stepping Back In Time

Digitoe's method of using 3D CAD to design goods prior to actual production is not that unusual. Manufacturers now use 3D CAD to design everything from airplanes to vacuum cleaners.

Digitoe's twist on the idea is that it employs modern technology to allow the company to revert back to a pre-industrial-era method of manufacturing goods. Zerobnick likens the procedure to that used when each product was custom made for its individual owner by a skilled craftsman.

Zerobnick, who's shoes cost between $275 and $350 per pair, acknowledges that his vision for an anachronistic business strategy isn't widely accepted as feasible in the footwear industry.

His ideas, however, do not differ drastically from those of higher-profile champions of mass customization.

"By creating customized products, you eliminate so many costs," said Zerobnick, whose total advertising budget is $350 a year to maintain a website at "There are no trade shows, no salespeople, no advanced production, no inventory, no returns, and no markdowns."

"And forget producing for lines a year and trying to guess which color green is going to sell when," added Zerobnick's partner, Jayne Woodward, whose former career included an 11-year stint as a designer at Timberland.

Licensing Digitoe's technology to larger manufacturers is also a possibility, but until now, most of those who have visited Digitoe to discuss the idea have left in search of their own method to provide mass customization services, Zerobnick said.

The ability to provide a quality product at a reasonable price could give small manufacturers an advantage over manufacturing giants to rigid to make a change.

In addition, the Internet provides an ideal forum for inexpensive advertising and allows regional manufacturers to take orders from all over the world. Prior to launching its scanning kiosk in Seattle, Digitoe had compiled a list of 400 customers that had viewed the company's website and contacted Digitoe for information on where they could order a pair of shoes.

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