Jan 17, 2017 | By Tess

Over the past couple of years, German sportswear brand Adidas has become increasingly recognized as a company that is not scared to push boundaries. By exploring new manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing, and by partnering with eco-minded organizations such as Parley, Adidas has emerged on the front line of a changing manufacturing landscape. Recently, the company made further inroads into new manufacturing terrains with the announcement of its new “Speedfactories,” which the company is opening in Germany and the United States.

Adidas’ first Speedfactory, which will soon open in Ansbach, Germany, will be the site of many new manufacturing processes, including 3D printing, computerized knitting, and robotic cutting. Its goal? To bring Adidas manufacturing back to Germany, and to open the doors for a new approach to footwear manufacturing.

Currently, the sports shoe industry—worth a whopping $80 billion a year—has largely outsourced its manufacturing to countries such as China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. And while ethics surrounding this practice have remained hazy at best, a changing financial landscape in said countries is making it increasingly difficult (read: expensive) for companies to maintain their arduous and mostly manual production techniques there.

Outsourcing difficulties are not the only reasons Adidas has made the step towards more technological and local production, however, as the company explains that shorter production times and more simplified supply chains are needed in order to keep up with consumer demand. Gerd Manz, head of technology innovation at Adidas, explained, “The way our business operates is probably the opposite of what consumers desire.”

Using current methods, a shoe can take up to 18 months (from design, to prototyping, to testing materials, to production) before ending up on a store shelf. Considering that many running shoes only end up selling for part of the year, the approach is certainly not the most efficient. By contrast, production at the Speedfactory will be able to supply stores with sneakers and sports shoes in under a week. According to the company, the production cycle could even be as short as one day, once the design is finalized. The shortened cycle is largely owed to new digital technologies which not only allow shoes to be digitally designed, but can also test and simulate the models.

Many details about the Speedfactory’s production system are understandably being kept under wraps, though Adidas has suggested that its physical manufacturing process will include making parts for the shoes using a variety of raw materials, including plastics, fibers, and more. As mentioned, the new factories will be equipped with a number of advanced manufacturing technologies, including machines for computerized knitting, robotic cutting, and of course, 3D printing, all of which will help create shoes in a faster, cheaper, and more materially efficient manner.

Of course, with the increase of automated technologies, the question of labour and employment is always close behind. According to Adidas, while the new Speedfactories will not employ as many manual laborers as factories in Asia, each will open up about 160 new positions for highly-skilled workers. For the moment at least, the company has emphasized that the tech-minded manufacturing facilities will be established to complement rather than replace Adidas' Asian-based factories. This is understandable considering that Adidas typically manufactures roughly 300 million pairs of shoes a year and the Speedfactories have an expected output of about 50,000 pairs a year.

Adidas is expected to open its Ansbach Speedfactory by mid-2017, and is readying the facility in partnership with Oechsler Motion, a local manufacturing equipment company. Additionally, construction on a second Speedfactory is already underway near the city of Atlanta, Georgia in the United States. If both factories prove to be successful, there is no telling how many more Speedfactories could pop up in the coming years. Adidas has also suggested that its new technologies could be implemented at existing factories across Asia, especially as the demand for sportswear increases there.

Close-up of Adidas' "3D Runner"

On another note, the new manufacturing techniques offer the ability to construct wholly new structures and designs for footwear. As we’ve seen, 3D design and printing have opened up the doors for garment and shoe production in a huge way, allowing for complex shapes and internal structures and for new and innovative materials. In terms of customization as well, 3D printing and digital design could offer unprecedented levels of personalization for shoes, taking into account a wearer’s posture, gait, and foot structure.

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Technology

 

 

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