As with fingerprints, every person has its own footprint, consisting of a unique combination of length, width, contours and pressure points. Given this fact, it should come to no surprise how difficult (or impossible) it is to find footwear that fits perfectly to satisfy our comfort needs. As we move into a new era where consumers increasingly dictate what they want, as well as when and where they want it, the ability to deliver individually customized goods will be key in setting aside winners from losers in the marketplace.
The footwear industry is uniquely positioned to capitalize on this growing trend, but industry players such as Adidas must first figure out how to make individualized mass manufacturing economically viable, both for themselves and for the consumer. According to the 11th edition of the Deloitte Consumer Review, footwear is one of the most popular categories in consumer interest in personalized products, with an overall rating of 37%, while the average grows to close to 50% for consumers between 16-39 years of age. Moreover, half of the customers said they would be willing to wait longer for a customized product or service, and the majority would be willing to pay a premium (up to 27% in footwear). Given these trends, it is safe to assume that footwear companies that do not integrate individualized customization into their product offering risk losing both revenue and customer loyalty.
Enter additive manufacturing, a process used to create a three-dimensional object based on a digital file. “Imagine walking into a store, running briefly on a treadmill and instantly getting a 3D-printed running shoe”. This is the ambitious goal that Adidas has set itself for the future, and they are working hard to achieve it before their competitors. In a move towards bespoke products engineered to fit consumers’ unique physiological data, Adidas partnered with Silicon Valley-based tech company Carbon last year. Carbon pioneered Digital Light Synthesis, a revolutionary process that overcomes many of the shortcomings of traditional additive manufacturing methods (i.e. 3D printing), such as low production speed and scale, poor surface quality, and color and material restrictions. This technology was used to develop and launch Futurecraft 4D, Adidas’ latest push towards mainstream 3D printed footwear.
Looking into the future, the company is planning to introduce 100,000 pairs of Futurecraft 4D shoes by the end of 2018. However, as it can be deduced from the limited number of pairs available and the product’s price point at $300, the technology used remains limited in terms of cost and scale. In order to address this, Adidas has a very aggressive plan to scale production in the short term. By helping Carbon close a $200 million Series D funding and by positioning one of their Executive Board members in Carbon’s Board, they are putting in place a strategy to become the world’s largest producer of 3D printed products. Estimates are that they will have enough 3D printers to produce 1 million pairs by year’s end. Further down the road, James Carnes, VP of Global Brand Strategy, stated that Carbon’s technology will be instrumental in achieving their goals of shortened product cycle time and the creation of an “on-demand” model to reduce excess inventory.
As 3D printing becomes increasingly important in Adidas’ supply chain, I would recommend management to start evaluating possible locations for local 3D production sites close to final market destinations. Even though they still produce most of their shoes in China, one of the biggest advantages brought by 3D printing will be the possibility to produce products locally and thus minimize shipping time and cost. This said, Adidas should start planning for which locations will be best suited to host 3D production sites. In addition, given the current trends towards individualized customization, I would also advise management to start experimenting with in-store customer footprint data recollection. By doing this, the company will be better prepared to make the jump into on-demand personalized shoes once the 3D printing capabilities have been robustly incorporated into their global supply chain.
Finally, after gaining a general understanding of Adidas’ bet on 3D printing for the future of shoemaking, I pose the following questions: Will this innovative production method ever overcome traditional manufacturing in the shoemaking industry? Will we eventually shift towards a 100% personalized footwear world?
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 The Deloitte Consumer Review – Made to Order: The rise of mass personalization. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/ch/Documents/consumer-business/ch-en-consumer-business-made-to-order-consumer-review.pdf. Pages 15-18. Accessed November 2018.
 D. Spaeth. 3D printing is changing the face of multiple industries. ECN: Electronic Component News 61, no. 9 (October 2017): Page 21.
 Adidas Group, “Adidas Breaks The Mould With 3d-Printed Performance Footwear”, https://www.adidas-group.com/en/media/news-archive/press-releases/2015/adidas-breaks-mould-3d-printed-performance-footwear/. Accessed November 2018.
 Tech Crunch, “Adidas joins Carbon’s Board as its 3D printed shoes finally drop”, https://techcrunch.com/2018/01/18/adidas-joins-carbons-board-as-its-3d-printed-shoes-finally-drop/. Accessed November 2018.