3D Printing at Adidas: A PR Scheme to Conceal Mass Production or a Breakthrough Lever to Unveil True Mass Customization?

3D Printing at Adidas in Partnership with Carbon

The fashion industry’s manufacturing processes are flawed; wastefulness of resources, unnecessary labor, and the inability to quickly react to consumer preferences at an individual level have all contributed to production inefficiencies at a global scale. Adidas and Carbon, an innovative 3D printing and manufacturing technology company, have formed a partnership in order to revolutionize these traditional archaic production practices and transform the industry from one of mass production to mass customization [1]. Carbon’s vision to utilize new forms of additive manufacturing, such as DLS (Digital Light Synthesis), and a proprietary method know as CLIP (Continuous Liquid Interface Production), will replace the costly practice of injection molding, a technique utilized by virtually every apparel manufacture company to arrive at a finished prototype, which is then employed for mass production [2]. Through DLS and CLIP, Carbon is able to ensure production consistencies with predictable mechanical properties, creating an opportunity for the customization of complex prototypes to be made available for sale, while also limiting the quantity of resin materials, or polymers, necessary to create finished goods [3].  The resulting product requires less waste, lower labor costs, and the ability to rapidly iterate the design process until the final design specifications are met.

Integrating additive manufacturing into the brand’s daily production practices allows Adidas to rethink their go to market strategies, potentially giving the brand a serious competitive advantage in the global apparel industry. In combination with the DLS and CLIP technologies, Adidas has built the ability to sync the R&D processes with a cloud based software system that allows them to test various athlete’s performance metrics, from foot striking force to stride length, in order quickly customize the end product, in this case the mid-sole, to adhere to the performance standards of a specific athlete [4]. These benefits will allow Adidas to customize a product for an individual consumer, but it also allows the brand to create batches of the same style for sports teams, while catering each shoe to the athlete’s unique specifications. This is the perfect marriage between design aesthetics and data driven production.

This ability to iterate on the design specs can greatly cut down the inventory delivery cycle times from industry norms of six months to fifteen months, to just three to seven days. These advantages combined with the switch to leaner production lines, a single engineer is needed to operate a single machine, will provide additional outlets for cost savings along the production process. While the technology itself speeds up the production process, Adidas has also rethought the way in which they intend to use their production facilities, changing them from micro-distribution centers to micro-factories [5]. With new facilities in Germany and Atlanta, knows as “The Speedfactory”, Adidas will be able to move some of the production from Asia to facilities that are closer to their actual retailers, allowing them to quickly meet the production needs of specific stores based on individual store sales [6]. This will give Adidas the ability to be closer to the consumer, improve the monitoring of inventory levels within a specific warehouse, and increase the overall production capacity.

While this partnership has created a tremendous edge for Adidas over the current footwear apparel landscape, it remains to be said if Carbon’s patented technology is enough to propel Adidas above other sportswear behemoths such as Nike and Under Armor. One of the obstacles currently facing Adidas is whether they can rapidly scale the scope of the technology in a cost-effective way to continue to gage their consumers product preferences while maintaining a swift feedback loop.

Adidas launched 5,000 pairs of their first 3D printed shoe, the Futurecraft 4D, this past January and it sold out in a matter of days. Was this this surge in demand for the product driven by the limited quantity released, or due to increasing consumer interest in experiencing the technology of a 3D printed sneaker? Additionally, Adidas plans to be able to produce 1 million pairs of the 3D sneakers during 2019, and given Adidas’ total footwear production of 400 million pairs during 2018, this would represent a meager .25% [7]. Would this ramp up of production cause the consumer to negatively perceive the 3D sneaker as another form of mass production vs. that of mass customization? Will the 3D sneaker even appeal to the preferences of the mass consumer, or will consumers deem it as a fad? Lastly, will Adidas position the sneaker as a B2B product, selling to professional sports teams, or will they be able to incorporate 3D printers into their retail chains (B2C) and actually produce efficiently enough to enhance the overall consumer experience?

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[1] Harvard Business Review. (2018). Which 3-D Printing Business Model Is Right for Your Company?. [online] Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/07/the-3-d-printing-playbook [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].

[2] Carbon. (2018). Learn About the CLIP™ 3D Manufacturing Process – Carbon. [online] Available at: https://www.carbon3d.com/process/ [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].

[3] Flower, I. (2018). Is Mass Customization the Future of Footwear?. [online] WSJ. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/is-mass-customization-the-future-of-footwear-1508850000 [Accessed 7 Nov. 2018].

[4] TechCrunch. (2018). How Adidas and Carbon are changing the sneaker supply chain. [online] Available_at:https://techcrunch.com/2018/09/07/how-adidas-and-carbon-are-changing-the-sneaker-supply-chain/ [Accessed 10 Nov. 2018].

[5] The Economist. (2018). 3D printers start to build factories of the future. [online] Available at: https://www.economist.com/briefing/2017/06/29/3d-printers-start-to-build-factories-of-the-future [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].

[6] Bloomberg.com. (2018). Bloomberg – Are you a robot? [online] Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-10-05/adidas-brings-the-fast-shoe-revolution-one-step-closer [Accessed 9 Nov. 2018].

[7] Cheng, A. (2018). How Adidas Plans To Bring 3D Printing To The Masses. [online] Forbes. Available at:https://www.forbes.com/sites/andriacheng/2018/05/22/with-adidas-3d-printing-may-finally-see-its-mass-retail-potential/#3d5e26a34a60 [Accessed 8 Nov. 2018].

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4 thoughts on “3D Printing at Adidas: A PR Scheme to Conceal Mass Production or a Breakthrough Lever to Unveil True Mass Customization?

  1. The article peaked my interest, exploring the interesction between manufacturing technology innovation and mass consumer production. It’s my firm belief, that Adidas will not position this product as B2B only offering. As we recently saw in the Nike Football case, global sports apparel retailers like Adidas, use their professional athlete and team sponsorships as an effective method of promotion and as their R&D extreme design and test users. Having the opportunity to market to millions of consumers, why would Adidas drastically alter it’s business model and go-to-market when it could just as easily go after a pie possibly valued at billions?

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head on the split created by the spread of 3-D printing at Adidas:” mass production or mass customization”? Customer reaction, which is difficult to gauge until after the fact, will really determine the success of this technology. What we can agree on with its partnership with Carbon, it grants the firm more flexibility in volume sizes which the inject moulding did not truly grant for its business as they are completed in batches. I think to appreciate this new form of manufacturing not only as a customization play, but as a flexibility play in its output – many more benefits would be granted to Adidas such as the ability to make adjustments to match changes in customer preferences. I thought of Zara’s dominance in fast-fashion (https://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/zara-s-secret-for-fast-fashion) that the company gained by increasing its supply-chain efficiencies – potentially giving Adidas similar benefits to respond to customer interests potentially in real-time and in-store as you alluded to in your closing remarks.

  3. I am obsessed with KoF and thought this blog post illustrated the desperation that some sneakerheads have about certain colorways (https://www.kicksonfire.com/kofbestof2016-top-10-adidas-nmd-colorways/10/).

    Adidas should always be able to sell out a new, 5000-pair release. Regardless of a sneaker’s functionality, which appears to be superb in this case, Adidas has more than enough consumers with a fashion focus to drive strong sales from limited edition releases. To understand the appeal of mass customization, I believe the Company would need to more clearly articulate the difference additive manufacturing can provide to its current MiAdidas capabilities which provide some customization albeit in a cumbersome fashion. How will this change my in store shopping experience? How will this change my online shopping experience? How will this impact the value of my Cookies and Cream Ultra Boosts?

  4. I think this post is very interesting and captures some key issues we’ve talked about in marketing class. Can this technology, while increasing output and decreasing cost, actually have a negative impact on the brand? My initial thought is that additive manufacturing will be a net positive for Adidas. Firstly, it does appear that the Company can carefully walk the line between mass production and mass customization as a result of the batch processes. More importantly, I think that the fact that the Company can now get shoes to the end consumer more quickly will prove to be a big competitive advantage. Other questions I might have are: can Adidas use additive manufacturing to reduce costs in a way that flows through to the consumer, thereby making their products more competitive? How much have competitors invested in this technology– is Adidas a pioneer in the industry or trying to keep up with the competition?

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