3D Printing in Clothing
In recent years, the use of 3D printing has become increasingly popular in high-end fashion, particularly for haute couture collections (Exhibit 1) where creative constructions of unusual fabrics are highly valued. By relying on computer software to add successive layers of materials, designers are more willing to tackle complex designs and cutting techniques.
Although the same trend is not yet as apparent in sportswear fashion, mastering 3D printing can offer Adidas an edge in process management and product development. First, 3D printing reduces the cycle time, because production is processed entirely by a machine and eliminates the complexity of assembling multiple parts to create the finished goods. As a result, products are often produced “on-demand”, decreasing both excess inventory risk and storage cost . Second, because it limits variabilities due to human errors, and every detail is pre-calculated on the computer, 3D printing improves yield rate, translating to less material scraps and higher product quality.
Because the cycle time is shorter, and complex techniques are made easier with 3D printing, 3D printing facilitates the creation of smaller batches of sneakers customized to singular needs . This is crucial for sportswear, as every athlete has different needs to optimize their performances. Furthermore, by offering customization, 3D printing also allows customers to co-participate in the product development. Given that people often place a higher value on the items they own and develop, Adidas can leverage this endowment effect  to charge a higher price and earn a better margin.
After conducting several researches to understand different sports requirements, Adidas found that to perform at their best, athletes need different points of density throughout their midsole. However, with traditional manufacturing, the process of assembling multiple parts of foam with varying densities for midsoles is highly labor-intensive and introduces several potential points of failure. Confronted with this challenge, Adidas decided to collaborate with Carbon (a 3D-printing company) in 2017 to experiment the possibility of 3D printing midsoles.
Applying a method called Digital Light Synthesis (DLS), Carbon’s machines use digital light below the printing surface to shape liquid resins into the sneaker’s midsoles and start printing layer by layer from the bottom (Exhibit 2). Dr. DeSimone, CEO of Carbon, claimed that this method defied the traditional 4-step cycle (design, prototype, tool, production) and made it possible to go directly from design to production.
In January 2018, Adidas released its first 3D printed sneakers – Futurecraft 4D (Exhibit 3), calling it the “world’s first high performance footwear featuring midsoles crafted with light and oxygen”. The shoes were sold out within the month, leading Adidas to set a goal of one million pairs of 3D-printed sneakers, before expanding to other areas of sportswear in five to ten years.
Given the promising post-launch reception, in the short run, Adidas should first secure additional capacity from Carbon to scale up the production quickly and benefit from lower unit costs through economies of scale. As a result, Adidas will be able to cut the shoe price, enabling Futurecraft 4D to reach many more customers. In addition, Adidas should pilot setting up feet scanners at its network of retail stores and have customer run on a treadmill to provide biomechanical information. This action will serve two purposes: First, Adidas can use these scanners as a marketing tool to raise awareness and educate customers about this new technology. Second, the data collected will help Adidas further test the feasibility of customizing shoes to individual needs.
In the long run, Adidas should invest in R&D to overcome the current rigidity constraint of 3D printed materials and consider applying the technology to more flexible garments. This will allow Adidas to tailor not only the soles but also the other parts of the shoes, delivering a comprehensively customized product for every customer. This will open a new segment of high-end bespoken sneakers, where Adidas can potentially rival the likes of Chanel and Gucci in delivering haute couture services.
One of the biggest challenges that 3D printing poses to Adidas and the general fashion industry is intellectual property (IP) infringement and counterfeiting. As the technology becomes more readily available and portable, counterfeiters can use 3D scanners to create illegal copies of Adidas products and move operating sites quickly to eschew law enforcement. What can Adidas do to fully monetize their inventions and ensure that innovation would not suffer as a consequence of violated IP?
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 Amandine Richardot, “Everything You Need to Know About Additive Manufacturing, and What Can Be Done When Applying 3D Printing to Fashion,” Futur404, January 19, 2018. https://futur404.com/3d-printing/
 Allan Joseph, “Adidas Futurecraft 4D, and Why It Shows Adidas Isn’t Playing Defense When It Comes to Fashion Tech,” Futur404, April 26, 2017.
 Plott, Charles R; Zeiler, Kathryn, “The Willingness to Pay–Willingness to Accept Gap, the “Endowment Effect,” Subject Misconceptions, and Experimental Procedures for Eliciting Valuations”. American Economic Review. 95 (3): 530–545, 2005.
 Sarah Tolle, “adidas Unveils Industry’s First Application Of Digital Light Synthesis with Futurecraft 4D”, CARBON press release, April 7, 2017.
 Fitz Tepper, “adidas Latest 3D-printed Shoe Puts Mass Production Within Sight,” TechCrunch, April 7, 2017.
 Gina Hall, “Adidas Partners with Silicon Valley Startup to 3D-print Shoes,” BizJournals, April 7, 2017.
 “Adidas Unveils Industry’s First Application of Digital Light Synthesis with Futurecraft 4D,” Adidas Group press release, April 7, 2017.
 Andria Cheng, “How Adidas Plans To Bring 3D Printing To The Masses,” Forbes, May 22, 2018.
 Amandine Richardot, “Everything You Need to Know About Additive Manufacturing, and What Can Be Done When Applying 3D Printing to Fashion,” Futur404, January 19, 2018.
 Herbert Sim, “3D Printing In Luxury Fashion: Revolution Or Evolution?,” Forbes, December 3, 2017.