3D Printed Sneakers and Mass Customization – Is Adidas There Yet?

Adidas, a sporting goods giant, believes 3D printing is huge opportunity to disrupt footwear product development and supply chain. Is it another marketing gimmick or imminent future?

The advent of cost-efficient 3D printing machines is transforming the way we design and manufacture physical goods. Over 20% of goods 3D printed are now final products and the share is expected to grow to 50% by 2020.[1] The process known in the industry as “additive manufacturing” (in contrast to traditional, “subtractive” way of cutting and drilling) requires less materials, labour and retooling. Adidas, a sporting goods giant, is seeing it as a huge opportunity for disrupting footwear product development and supply chain. In its boldest vision, the firm wants to win the market by offering mass customers a sneaker tailored to individual foot and gait – shortly after placing order. Is it another marketing gimmick or imminent future?

 

Source: Adidas

Additive manufacturing offers a full-fledged competitive advantage – customization on mass scale offers products precisely adjusted to the individual customer specification, while keeping costs and manufacturing time lower than with conventional process. [2] Why is it important for firms like Adidas? Because customers’ feet are all different; sizes and shapes vary, but footwear products still come in single form and discrete size. Weight, posture and style of walking also play a role. With mass 3D printing, Adidas could give its everyday customers the same comfort and performance that currently only elite athletes can afford.[3] Stakes are big and Adidas is betting on additive manufacturing with two goals. First, to compete with its rival Nike in existing markets, it wants to change rules of the game. Cheaply produced variations of standard products that are closer to the tastes of customers will be critical to take the lead. Shortened cycle time, reduced excess inventory and shipping costs will also boost the bottom line. Second, moving into new lines and markets will be easier and faster by using additive to develop, test and modify new ideas. Further technology developments will offer previously unseen shapes and structures that may reinvent existing product offering.[4]

Adidas is taking big leaps to get ahead in additive manufacturing. Firstly, the firm is already addressing the problem of inefficient 3D printers, incapable of pivoting from prototyping one-off designs to mass production. Pairing up with Carbon, a Silicon Valley start-up, the firm is taking advantage of “Digital Light Synthesis” technology that “uses light and oxygen to make plastic objects like the sneaker midsoles from a pool of resin, without any messy waste or need for injection molding”.[5] As a result, midsole can be produced in less than 30 minutes and no cleaning is required – a paradigm shift in the industry.[6] The tandem claims that the new production process will ultimately help craft a better performing shoe and create previously near-impossible assemblies.[7] Secondly, Adidas has already tested 3D shoes on the market by releasing “Futurecraft” series earlier this year. While still a proof-of-concept, the batch sold out immediately and it provided important sandbox for the company creatives in their scale-up and market fit endeavour.[8] Lastly, in medium term Adidas is developing its concept of “Speedfactories” located in developed economies, where highly automated production lines churn out shoes in a day compared to 2-3 months in Asian facilities. Adidas will ultimately add Carbon’s 3D printers in each Speedfactory to achieve the ultimate goal: customised footwear – on mass scale, on-the-spot. [9]

Source: Exposure.net

While promising, Adidas’ efforts should be viewed more as a statement of intent rather than a viable business solution. There are several critical issues Adidas needs to address before it can shake up the sneakers industry and reap commercial benefits. Firstly, the speed, reliability and cost of 3D printing at high volumes is still a limiting factor. While its new printing process is supposedly “100 times faster” than the traditional 3D shoe printing[10], the automated “Speedfactory” plants will manufacture only 1m pairs of the total pool of 360m that the firm sells globally.[11] Incremental automation may help transform Adidas factories faster. Secondly, the shoes developed with additive manufacturing have received mixed reviews from customers so far.[12] To reach full utilitarian potential of customizable shoes, Adidas needs to come up with a retail experience that would convince the customer about the idea and then smoothly, yet precisely, measure her foot, movement and other data points.[13] Soliciting aftersales feedback should help calibrate best design to retain customers for long.

As we look forward to the future, two important questions arise. Firstly, as manufacturing goes digital and costs of entry into the business fall, should Adidas worry about losing customers to 3D printer producers and easier-than-ever IP infringements?[14] Secondly, will automated mass customization bring jobs back to developed countries which outsourced them few decades ago? Will it disrupt emerging economies and logistics businesses as we know?

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[1] “The printed world.” The Economist, 11 Feb. 2011, https://www.economist.com/briefing/2011/02/10/the-printed-world, accessed Nov. 2018.

[2] Richard A. D’Aveni, “The 3-D Printing Playbook.” Harvard Business Review, Jul.-Aug. 2018 issue, https://hbr.org/2018/07/the-3-d-printing-playbook, accessed Nov. 2018.

[3] Diana Budds, “3D-Printed Shoes For The Masses Are Here.” Fast Company, 07 Apr. 2017, https://www.fastcompany.com/90109145/3d-printed-shoes-for-the-masses-are-here, accessed Nov. 2018.

[4] Richard A. D’Aveni, “The 3-D Printing Playbook.” Harvard Business Review, Jul.-Aug. 2018 issue, https://hbr.org/2018/07/the-3-d-printing-playbook, accessed Nov. 2018.

[5] Andria Cheng, “How Adidas Plans To Bring 3D Printing To The Masses.” Forbes, 22 May 2018,  https://www.forbes.com/sites/andriacheng/2018/05/22/with-adidas-3d-printing-may-finally-see-its-mass-retail-potential/#422b7d024a60, accessed Nov. 2018.

[6] Mark Wilson, “How Adidas Cracked The Code Of 3D-Printed Shoes.” Fast Company, 11 Sep. 2017, https://www.fastcompany.com/90138066/how-adidas-cracked-the-code-of-3-d-printed-shoes, accessed Nov. 2018.

[7] “The perfect fit: Carbon + adidas collaborate to upend athletic footwear”, 07 Apr. 2018, https://www.carbon3d.com/stories/adidas/, accessed Nov. 2018.

[8] “adidas Futurecraft: The Ultimate 3D-Printed Personalized Shoe”, https://www.materialise.com/en/cases/adidas-futurecraft-ultimate-3d-printed-personalized-shoe, accessed Nov. 2018.

[9] Mark Wilson, “How Adidas Cracked The Code Of 3D-Printed Shoes.” Fast Company, 11 Sep. 2017, https://www.fastcompany.com/90138066/how-adidas-cracked-the-code-of-3-d-printed-shoes, accessed Nov. 2018.

[10] Andria Cheng, “How Adidas Plans To Bring 3D Printing To The Masses.” Forbes, 22 May 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/andriacheng/2018/05/22/with-adidas-3d-printing-may-finally-see-its-mass-retail-potential/#422b7d024a60, accessed Nov. 2018.

[11] Tom Hancock, “Adidas boss says large-scale reshoring is ‘an illusion’.” The Financial Times, 23 Apr. 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/39b353a6-263c-11e7-8691-d5f7e0cd0a16, accessed Nov. 2018.

[12] Jennifer Bissell-Linsk, “Nike’s focus on robotics threatens Asia’s low-cost workforce.” The Financial Times, 22 Oct. 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/585866fc-a841-11e7-ab55-27219df83c97, accessed Nov. 2018.

[13] Diana Budds, “3D-Printed Shoes For The Masses Are Here.” Fast Company, 07 Apr. 2017, https://www.fastcompany.com/90109145/3d-printed-shoes-for-the-masses-are-here, accessed Nov. 2018.

[14] “The printed world.” The Economist, 11 Feb. 2011, https://www.economist.com/briefing/2011/02/10/the-printed-world, accessed Nov. 2018.

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5 thoughts on “3D Printed Sneakers and Mass Customization – Is Adidas There Yet?

  1. Definitely an interesting strategic move by Adidas. You mention that “the shoes developed with additive manufacturing have received mixed reviews from customers so far.” I wonder what insights Adidas can glean from the negative reviews are. Are there issues with comfort and fit? Are 3D-printed shoes as durable as their traditional counterparts? You also mention that “cheaply produced variations of standard products that are closer to the tastes of customers will be critical [for Adidas] to take the lead.” Does Adidas currently manufacture variations on standard shoe products, or will this be a new endeavor for them? It also appears that Adidas has a chance to really establish themselves as an information partner with their customers, using customer data to design and deliver highly customized products. Will precision customization resonate with all Adidas customers? Will some customers find this offering distracting?

  2. Building on Raleigh’s comment, I do think some of the issues stemming from negative reviews could be due to pricing/ accessibility and it is still a proof of concept. To illustrate, the Futurecraft 4D retailed at USD300 and reseller prices are over USD1000 (based on the GOAT app). And this price is currently being paid for something that has not come to fulfill its promise of customization at a lower cost – right now the model comes in several colorways but are not customized for your feet.

    Another point here is 3D scanning technology has been experimented with in the footwear industry – even in countries such as Indonesia there are brands (Mario Minardi) that offer bespoke shoes (made for the specs of your feet). For traditional dress shoes however, what has been found is that the definition of a good and comfortable fit is actually different for each individual. Some people like shoes that are a bit more loose, others on the tighter end. Bespoke dress shoes typically have the customer come in for multiple visits to try out the shoe to ensure it is right for them. While sneakers are generally more comfortable than dress shoes, I do think that this poses a challenge where the customer may be given a 3D printed shoe that according to their measurements should be perfect, but given their personal preferences are not the fit they are looking for. In essence, I think there is still a lot of art in the footwear industry that pure science cannot take over. Thus the bigger value in my opinion is in the lower cost and time of production coupled with customized designs but not necessarily in getting ‘the perfect fit’.

  3. This is a great article!
    I believe that Adidas, along with many of its competitors and other players in the fashion industry, are rightfully investing and growing their 3D printing capabilities. Not only can Adidas allow customers to customize their own shoes, but it can also use 3D models to quickly test new ideas, models, features, shapes, etc.
    I see some risk in losing customers to other 3D printing companies. The positive thing for Adidas is: the brand has already a loyal base and has very high visibility (leveraging some Marketing terms – thank you Roger’s 5) – people like being seen wearing the Adidas brand. However, I believe this could impact Adidas mainly in terms of costs. As other competitors become increasingly good at leveraging 3D printing and as the technology progresses, their costs will start falling drastically and if Adidas doesn’t catch up, then I don’t think the brand value is strong enough to explain such high prices.
    In addition, I agree with Raleigh about the possibility to leverage machine learning to improve, mainly in terms of performance. In fact, the ability to quickly produce and test can allow Adidas to include some sensors in the shoes to monitor key attributes (e.g. pressure points, inertia). This data coupled with consumer input will enable Adidas to develop better shoes for its customers. (They could even potentially test it with 3D printing and manufacture it normally based on consumer preference/ shoe success).

  4. Thank you for writing about this. The biggest stat that jumped out in this piece is that Adidas is able to manufacture only 1M via 3-D printing out of 360M pairs sold, even with its new and faster printing process. Until 3-D printing can scale up to match traditional manufacturing output, I see this as a niche product offering for customers that want a high level of customization.

    Nike is also entering this 3-D printing space (https://www.engadget.com/2018/04/17/nike-flyprint/). Their product, the FlyPrint, is only produced in a limited run for now. If Adidas can ramp up 3-D printing faster, can they surpass Nike in innovation?

  5. Thanks for the insight into Adidas’ 3D manufacturing process, Kubs. I don’t think Adidas should have much to worry about from 3D printer producers. People buy Adidas shoes for their performance, not for their price. So long as Adidas can produce 3D-printed shoes that (1) perform just as well as, if not better than, the subtractive-ly produced shoes and (2) are similarly priced to (or at least are not substantially more expensive than) the subtractive-ly produced shoes, Adidas should be able to retain customers. The point you made regarding customers’ mixed reviews on additive manufactured shoes is a real concern. Having said that, Adidas has made a head start in this 3D printing journey. It should give Adidas some buffer (at least against 3D printer producers) to work out ways to scale up the additive manufacturing line and improve the quality of the end products. Furthermore, IP infringers are more focused on price than on performance. As such, I don’t think they will pose a huge threat to Adidas (again, based on my assumptions regarding Adidas 3D-printed shoes stated earlier).

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