The seed of Nick Unis’ 3-D printing company germinated while the former Central Valley High School student was in a long line waiting to buy the latest high-end athletic shoes at the Champs Sports store in Beaver Valley Mall.
As teenagers, Mr. Unis, now 20, and his younger brother, Jake, would join between 50 and 75 other sneaker buffs at 4 a.m., waiting for the chance to buy a limited number of Air Jordan and Nike shoes the first day they went on sale. With as few as 12 pairs available, they sometimes went home shoeless.
“My dad wasn’t happy that me and my brother would do that, so he said why don’t you just get a job there,” said the younger Mr. Unis, who is in the third year of a five-year program that will earn him two bachelor’s and one master’s degree from Penn State’s business school.
Nick Unis, then 16, got a job at Champs, where he could reserve new models for himself and a few pairs for friends.
He began customizing the shoes: coloring or dyeing them; changing the fabric; adding a school or other logo; or installing LED lighting. He learned how to tear the shoes apart and put them back together by trial and error.
“I didn’t have to buy anyone a new pair of shoes because of messing them up,” he said.
For most jobs, Mr. Unis said, he collected $80 to $100 per pair.
Doing about 25 pairs a month sharpened his skills and creativity so much that he eventually attracted the attention of Nike. The shoe giant didn’t like his rework of a pair of Air Jordan’s that were put on auction on eBay in January 2015. Mr. Unis asserts that bidding eventually blew past the top sale price he envisioned, $1,500. It went high enough to prompt Nike to send the youthful entrepreneur a cease-and-desist letter.
“They didn’t like that I was messing with the Jordan shoes,” Mr. Unis said.
The experience was the beginning of his serious pursuit of making custom-built shoes that provide comfort and style based on an individual’s foot size and tastes. Selling shoes at Champs made him realize that mass produced shoes don’t satisfy a lot of people — like the customer whose feet were two different sizes.
“He would have to buy a size 10 [pair] and a size 11 when he would buy shoes,” Mr. Unis said.
3-D printing technology, which makes products from digital images, can make each shoe a perfect fit. So Mr. Unis began exploring the burgeoning technology.
When Stratasys, a major 3-D printer provider, quoted him a $150,000 base price, the Penn State student started looking for a cheaper way.
After exploring online forums on the technology and speaking with some people who were already using the equipment, Mr. Unis designed his own 3-D printer with parts obtained from hardware stores and other sources.
He also needed a software program that enabled his printer to produce shoes based on digital data about each customer’s feet. So he took a programming class and learned how to adapt open source software, readily available online.
The result is a $500 printer that methodically spits out a ribbon of soft, flexible thermoplastic polyurethane. Thin layer by thin layer, the plastic takes the form of the lower and upper parts of two types of sandals, one with two straps and a slide-on version. Mr. Unis said he designed the shoes, but that his company, Unis Brands, is in the process of hiring a footwear designer.
It takes about nine hours to print a sole made of harder plastic and two hours to print an upper made of a softer plastic that has the feel of a heavy fabric, he said.
Mr. Unis won $5,000 last year in a Penn State business plan competition that helped him refine the product and printing process. He said mentors at Penn State’s Altoona campus helped Unis Brands get space in the Happy Valley LaunchBox, a business accelerator that provides a place to work, experts to mentor him, and other resources.
An internship program sponsored by Penn State’s engineering school supplied Mr. Unis with eight student interns this semester. They are improving the durability and aesthetics of the shoe and trying to increase the speed of the printer without compromising quality.
“They have been very helpful as far as taking our 98 percent finished product to 100 percent,” he said.
Mr. Unis said he and his father, dentist Nicholas Unis in Center, Beaver County, have invested about $10,000 so far in Unis Brands, with the son’s share of the seed money coming from his shoe customization days.
Nick Unis is one of six finalists seeking $30,000 in prize money from Inc. U, a Shark Tank-style competition funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The competition will be broadcast next month on PBS’ “The Investment.”
This summer, he plans to start selling the sandals online at unisbrands.com. They will be priced at $100 to $120 a pair.
“We think that is perfectly reasonable for a fully customizable shoe,” Mr. Unis said.
To order a pair, buyers will either measure each of their feet at its longest and widest point or use a printout available on the company’s website. The data will be fed into software that tells the printer what to do.
His plans are to print the footwear at a site near Pittsburgh that’s equipped with about 30 printers. An athletic shoe, which he said is about 75 percent finished, should follow a short time later.
Len Boselovic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1941.