For the past two decades Nike has absolutely dominated the global athletic footwear market. With roughly 35% of a $64 billion market that is expected to grow at a Compound Annual Growth Rate of slightly over 5% from 2018 to 2025  – Nike sits in a dominate position. Nevertheless, Adidas has recently taken market share from Nike, doubling its 2016 share of 6% to 12% in 2017 . It’s focus on scale, online presence, and success in recognizing trends are just a few reasons behind its’ surging performance . With a look towards the future, Adidas is investing in 3-D additive manufacturing to produce the footwear that may just unseat the market heavyweight that is Nike.
In order to do so, Adidas is in investing heavily in 3-D printing through a partnership with Silicon Valley based startup Carbon. Carbon uses a form of 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, that it calls “Digital Light Synthesis (DLS)” – a method of continuous liquid interface production. Unlike traditional 3-D manufacturing which overlays two dimensional layers of material on top of each other to create a three dimensional product, DLS uses light and oxygen to make plastic objects like sneaker mid-soles from a pool of resin without waste or a need for injection molding . The 3-D printer receives input from cloud based software that can be easily customized. Ultimately, this technology can scan consumers feet in stores, gather data about their gait, and deliver personalized shoes in a printing process that is “100 times faster” than the roughly 24 hours required of traditional 3-D shoe printing utilized by competitors like Under Armour . While it is difficult to compete with traditional manufacturing on scale, 3-D printing has a massive advantage when considering the cycle time of design, prototyping, production, and delivery. If a completely new shoe design is desired the cycle time required for design, prototyping, testing, manufacturing, and shipping can push design to delivery time on the order of 15-18 months .
The benefits of additive manufacturing go well beyond the custom fit shoe creation and improved cycle times. Shoe manufacturers traditionally look to low cost of labor markets like Asia to source the manufacturing of its shoes. In fact, Adidas sourced 68% of its shoes from Asian manufacturing centers in 2016 . Carbon’s 3-D printer will allow Adidas to relocate production plants from Asia, to more advantageous distribution locations that can provide just in time manufacturing and a quick customized response.
Adidas manufactured roughly 5,000 pairs of its $300 Futurecraft 4D shoe with Carbon in 2017 and officially announced a formal partnership in April of 2018 . It plans to produce 100,000 pairs of Futurecraft 4D by the end of 2018 and is beginning to shift 3-D shoe production to a factory near Adidas’s headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany as well as out of Carbon’s silicon valley plant. While the specifics of Adidas long-term plan are purposefully vague, the goal is to make a uniquely customized shoe that is manufactured and delivered in a fraction of the cycle time required by traditional shoe manufacturing.
It should not come as a shock that the 3-D footwear space is hotly contested. Both Nike, New Balance, and Under Armour are producing shoe models specific to elite level sports performance in soccer, baseball, and cross training. Because of the low barriers to entry, Adidas needs to ensure it markets the shoe and its process to the right consumer and solidify its “mind share” in the “future of footwear” market. In this case, Adidas should focus its activities on serious amateur athletes and those with unique foot related issues that would be ideal initial customers for a premium margin product.
Despite its potential, questions remain about Carbon’s proposed shoe manufacturing technology. Traditional additive manufacturing can cause products to be inconsistent on a molecular basis and therefore structurally weak in a particular axis . Carbon claims to avoid this weakness due to its “Digital Light Synthesis” production process that builds from a pool of resin vice a layered additive approach. Despite that difference, questions remain. Can the shoe hold up to the wear and tear of dynamic activities involving quick start and stop or cutting motions? Will the resin used in the process remain durable in the face of the elements and the variety of chemicals found on a run through an urban landscape? And finally, will there be enough buyers of this high margin product to make a significant dent on Nike’s market share?
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