Here Come the Robots: Imagining the Footwear Factories of the Future

Try and imagine the footwear factory of the future. What do you see?

If it were up to Adidas, it would look something like thousands of shoes rolling off a production line at the company’s new robotic Speedfactory facilities. These shoes would be shipped where they’re made, drastically cutting shipping time.

Owing to advances in software technology, robots would be able to construct intricately designed shoes at breakneck pace, the entire process overseen by highly-skilled workers who are cross-trained in several different specializations.

These shoes wouldn’t look like shoes of years past, either. New materials will enable creative minds to make shoes that excite consumers with their newness, while allowing Adidas to market an entirely new vertical centered around robotic-made footwear.

Even if this isn’t reality quite yet, it isn’t the stuff of footwear fiction either. In 2016, footwear companies made real steps towards an automated future.

Adidas has been the most aggressive, pushing new technology with the opening of its first robot-enabled Speedfactory in Ansbach, Germany last year. The facility is already being used to manufacture innovative shoes made of recycled ocean plastic and naturally degradable Biosteel fibers.

Within the next year, the company plans to produce commercial quantities of select shoes at Speedfactory locations in Germany and Atlanta (set to open in 2017), while factories in France and the United Kingdom are already planned for later dates.

“Equipped with cutting-edge manufacturing technologies, the U.S. factory enables Adidas to create products in increasingly high volumes with advanced complexity in color, materials and sizes,” said the company in a press release earlier this year.

Adidas’ Reebok unit is in on the action as well with its own Liquid Factory, which utilizes state-of-the-art software and robotics to literally draw shoes in three dimensions. This too will bring manufacturing jobs back to U.S. shores.

reebok_liquid_speed_grey_side
Reebok

Not content with letting its biggest rival go into the future unchecked, Nike is said to be developing its own robot-operated factories, although it’s been mum on exact details. What is known is that the company is building a new supply chain in the Americas, setting the groundwork for a more local future.

With the help of robots, the athletic shoe industry is now primed to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. for the first time in decades. But what does this change mean for workers? And how will new advances in technology impact the design and sale of shoes?

Future Materials

“From a designer’s perspective, the future of this industry is going to be the materials.”

That’s D’Wayne Edwards, former design director of Brand Jordan, and founder of Pensole Footwear Design Academy in Portland, Ore. If anyone knows materials, it’s him.

In his current position at Pensole, he works to develop and place the next generation of footwear creatives, teaching students who get to work with a host of innovative materials as a part of their studies, from synthetics and ecoleathers to foams and cushioning supports.

As he tells it, the shoe may end up like high-end automobiles, which are still produced by a combination of machines and humans.

“Robots will most definitely replace humans in some parts of the process, but it depends on the product you’re trying to create. If you’re trying to create a luxury product there’s still a level of handmade and craftsmanship that people would like for it to have. People equate craftsmanship and quality with hands, not robots,” he said.

But material innovation doesn’t just mean using old fabrics in new ways, it means creating new materials altogether. At SoftWear, an Atlanta-based automation company, fabric is turned into a sort of map, which robots can then use to steer material through a sewing needle.

“From a designer’s perspective, the future of this industry is going to be the materials.”

Using technology developed at Georgia Tech, SoftWear has rapidly expanded to automating all corners of the sewn goods world, including bathmats, towels, car floor mats, linens, curtains, and printed materials like banners. In 2017, they will introduce the same automated technology to footwear and apparel.

As shoe designs have become increasingly complex in recent years, one of the most important aspects to innovating the sports shoe will be how to reduce the number of parts, which saves on time and money in the production process.

“Footwear has been driven by designers looking to use different types of materials and patterns, and what’s happened is the standard shoe has gone from 22 pieces to 77 pieces,” said Pete Santora, SoftWear VP of sales.

In addition to reducing the number of parts per shoe, automation must also be able to handle other elements of construction. Sneaker uppers are of particular concern, currently accounting for roughly 70 percent of the labor in the industry, according to Santora.

While robots have been capable of performing rote tasks like welding car parts for decades, new advances in vision-equipped robotics, in addition to material innovations like those produced at SoftWear, are enabling a new generation of machines capable of performing far more complex, detail-oriented work needed for footwear.

To date, this has primarily resulted in the production of non-sewn footwear styles that require less work on the uppers, but advances in technology are making sewn styles a reality.

“Some of the non-sewn styles were a response to the fact that there wasn’t a way to automate the sewn styles. Now we are figuring out ways to automate the sewn styles, and we’re seeing a lot of interest in that,” said Santora.

On the creative end of the process, this means the gap between a designer’s vision and market reality is smaller than ever before. The question then becomes what should the shoe of the future look like?

“Do we want a similar look with sewn products with that original look, or that style that everyone already buys, and if that’s the case, how do we automate that?” said Santora. “People are tackling this in steps. Maybe they’re still getting molds from Asia but they’re looking at automating the uppers. Or they’re figuring out how to automate both.”

The current trend towards sock-like structures on shoe uppers may also help explain the attraction towards 3D printing technology, which companies like Under Armour and New Balance already use in limited capacities, like creating printed midsoles.

New Balance midsole

In theory, an entirely 3D printed shoe wouldn’t require the upper to be attached to the molding, greatly simplifying the manufacturing process, though for now, the amount of time associated with 3D printing makes it largely nonviable for mass production purposes in footwear. But perhaps that isn’t the point.

“I don’t think mass production is the intent now. I think the intent is to push the boundaries of manufacturing from a quality point of view, and a design point of view,” said Edwards.

“Our industry is very old. We’ve been making shoes the same way for over 100 years. So our processes are very archaic. That’s why I applaud Adidas with their Speedfactory because at least they’re trying to manufacture shoes in a new way. And when you manufacture shoes in a new way you end up creating shoes that look different,” he continued.

For companies and consumers alike, looking different may end up being a good thing, as it allows brands to offer more diverse product offerings.

But automation won’t just change the sneaker as we know it today, but also the way they’re made, impacting the lives of millions of workers who produce most of the world’s shoes.

Future Workers

For years, the industry has chased cheap labor across Asia, first in China and more recently into Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh. With automation, companies have potentially found an even less expensive method of production that largely cuts out the need for low-skilled labor.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be fewer workers in the footwear process, but those that remain will have greater skill sets. They will be cross-trained in all or many operations, rather than the same operation repeated day in and day out. This reduces strain on the workers, which in turn helps cut turnover.

Automation will create new jobs as well. Adidas has already confirmed its upcoming Atlanta Speedfactory will employ roughly 160 people. The company says it hopes to produce some 50,000 running shoes by the end of 2017 there, with a medium-term goal of 500,000 pairs of shoes in both running and other product categories.

In addition to those working in production, automation will also require a new generation of creatives who are able to think about the design process in new ways.

“Technology creates more creators. So you’re going to create more entrepreneurs, more innovators, more capable people around producing goods locally to their communities,” said Santora. “So yes, it’s made in America here. But it’s also more made in China, made in Europe for those markets.”

But the use of robots goes beyond cost alone. The seamstress talent of the world is aging. Most are between 50 and 70 years old. With millennials across Asia acquiring greater education to seek jobs outside of manufacturing, there’s a genuine question about the sustainability of using workers to such a large degree.

“Seamstress talent is not sustainable. No one wants to be a seamstress, and that’s the truth.”

In China, for instance, nearly 30 percent of millennials who go into sewing footwear leave after the Chinese New Year in February. This places tremendous pressure on factories who must retrain new workers in their place, many of whom lack the experience and skills needed to produce high-quality goods.

Companies are well aware of this, and Santora says it’s been driving growth in automation.

“If it was just a cost question, [our company] would still only be seeing marginal increases right now. I think the exponential factor around our growth is that the talent doesn’t exist anywhere in the world,” he said. “There is no new seamstress talent. It is a tiny percentage of the population. We are going to have a labor shortage of seamstresses within the next 10 years, and within the next five in China.”

Though comparing costs is dependent on a number of factors, Santora says most U.S. facilities expect a two-year ROI, while those in Europe expect it within three. In China, it may take as many as seven years for factories to start seeing the cost benefits of using robots.

“Machines will have to be cheap enough to offset talent, but talent is not replacing itself,” said Edwards. “Seamstress talent is not sustainable. No one wants to be a seamstress, and that’s the truth.”

Future Sustainability

To that end, the real disruption of automation goes far beyond material innovations or the impact robots will have on workers. Instead, it will be the new efficiency at all levels of the process, from design to manufacturing to market, that will have the greatest impact on the footwear industry, reducing both cost and waste while potentially bolstering local communities.

This new efficiency could potentially take many forms. For one company, it might mean being able to better work with local artisans who can create in small batches without being beholden to large runs of material or big orders. For another, it might be automating their entire portfolio, rather than just a single product or step in the production process, allowing low-skilled workers to move up within the company.

“There hasn’t been any innovation in 30 years. The only innovation was a cheaper location, and a cheaper population of people. So that shift towards technology is going to drive some substantial innovations,” said Santora.

With greater efficiency comes the possibility of new design opportunities, too, as new technologies take us into a world of footwear that hasn’t been seen before.

“I’m excited about technology being created that is more purposeful,” said Edwards. “Purposeful in the sense that it makes you better. So when you put on shoes, you are better by putting on shoes than walking barefoot, and it’s factually backed up by technology and data rather than marketing gimmicks.”

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