Updated: June 15th, 2017

The traditional way of manufacturing sneakers is slowly being phased out to keep up with consumer demands for faster and more instant access to “drops.” While newer technologies have been introduced since sneakers were first invented, there’s still no denying that manufacturing can be painstakingly slow. Sneaker companies also tend to take a while to develop a new shoe, sometimes taking up to 18 months to finish everything from designing to production, but that may no longer be the case in a few years.

Adidas innovation

Source: Sport Industry

According to a research note for investors released by Morgan Stanley on June 6th, technology and automation are starting to take over. Big names in the industry like Nike and Adidas are already employing the use of innovative ways to make and distribute their products in order to provide a win-win solution for themselves and shoppers.

While everything is still in its early stages, these innovations are slowly gaining momentum, especially in the design and production phases of sneaker production. Morgan Stanley reports that these technologies will allow companies to provide their products at a faster pace and much lower prices, with the possibility of tailor-making a product for a costumer’s tastes. The report also states that the 18-month lead-time for sneaker production can get cut down to just four months.

The Morgan Stanley report also states that by 2023, almost 20% of production for Nike and Adidas will be moved to automated factories to keep up with the “buy now/wear now” mindset that consumers have as a result of e-commerce. Most of these plants are also bound to be proprietary, meaning that companies wouldn’t have to rely on manufacturing from an outside source and giving them more opportunity to cut costs and churn our products quicker.

Adidas already made headlines before 2015 ended thanks to the “Speedfactory” that the company opened in Germany that introduced “intelligent robotic technology” to create shoes. By April of this year, they announced that they’d be producing 5,000 pairs of their Futurecraft 4D shoes with a 3D-printed midsole that will be available to shoppers by fall/winter 2017. Adidas also predicted that by 2020, half of their sales would be from products that were created with the help of technology that manufactures products quickly, which allows their stores to keep up with inventory demands.

Adidas Speedfactory 1

Source: Fast Company

“This means existing suppliers using traditional manufacturing probably retain 90% of total industry production five years from now. However, beyond five years, the trend should continue when the big brands and rivals likely begin catching up,” according to Morgan Stanley analysts.

Product Design

As with everything else that begins with a design, sneakers start as a simple sketch before a brand can approve it for mass release. They have to create patterns that function as instructions for the manufacturer that’s in charge of assembly and build a metal mold for the sole so that they can produce a prototype for the design—all of this could take weeks, sometimes even months. They would then need to create a sample to iron out any kinks that the design might have, and it could take several samples and a whole year just to have the perfect one ready for production.

That whole process may be eliminated in a few years thanks to virtual prototyping. During the last quarter of 2015, Nike announced their partnership with NOVA, which is a powerful technology platform used by DreamWorks in their animated films, including How To Train Your Dragon 2. NOVA will allow Nike to create photorealistic 3D images for their designs, which will completely eradicate the need to create countless prototypes before approving a design for production. The technology will also allow material simulations, which gives designers the ability to estimate the fit of a shoe. This gives the company more opportunities to create more designs in less time.

Around the same time as that announcement, Adidas also let consumers in on their plans to use 3D printing in their production—something that will let them go from designing to 3D printing a finished product within 24 hours with virtually no need for prototyping. The tooling step of production, which is when molds are built for foam soles, usually takes a month or so to finish. With 3D printing, it only takes a matter of hours for a sole prototype to be completed.

Automated Manufacturing

Both Adidas and Nike are catalysts in the industry when it comes to investing in automation, since they’re two of the biggest names out there. Adidas’ Speedfactory in Germany is a good glimpse into the future of sneaker production. And Nike engineers are now using robotics to paint midsoles of sneakers, a process that used to require the usage of tape in order to ensure that only certain areas of the shoes get painted. According to the report, this “enables new aesthetic paint effects that cannot be achieved by hand.”

Both of these companies are also aiming to build factories closer to key target markets. While it’s common knowledge that most of their products are manufactured in Asia, particularly in China, they want to have the capability to produce smaller batches of their goods in a shorter amount of time in order to meet the demands of consumers all over the world.

Adidas Speedfactory 2

Source: Fast Company

Adidas already has a second Speedfactory in Atlanta, Georgia to kick-start this goal for the company. Mass production of their goods may not be able to return to Europe or the US anytime soon, but these factories located near key markets that produce small batches will cut down the weeks that it usually takes to ship goods from Asia.

A win-win solution

These technological changes in design and manufacturing aren’t just beneficial to the companies, but shoppers should also be hyped up about all of these. It means that they wouldn’t need to wait weeks or months to get their hands on an item that they want. It also means that they can have the freedom to have something custom-made, as it will be easier and more affordable for brands to produce just one piece of an item. The Morgan Stanley report predicts, “Let’s say the consumer likes one style, but just wants to change one thing. He’ll be able to do that. What if he wants the product customized to his foot? No problem. Let’s say he’s traveling and wants to pick it up at a Foot Locker store near his hotel the next day? Easy.”

As for the companies, this will cut back lead times and allow them to provide products for the market faster compared to when they would usually wait for huge quantities of goods to be manufactured before releasing it to consumers in order to meet demand. And since processes are streamlines, it could potentially save these companies up to 10% in production.

For now, Nike and Adidas are the only ones that are benefitting heavily from this structure. However, in a few years’ time, there’s a high chance that other big brands such as New Balance, Under Armour, Puma, and Reebok will follow suit.

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