Breaking the Molds: 3D-Printing and The Future of Shoemaking

“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. What role will additive manufacturing play in making it possible?

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)[1]. 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[2]. “Imagine walking into a store, running briefly on a treadmill and instantly getting a 3D-printed running shoe”[3]. 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[4]. 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[5]. 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[6].

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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References

[1] 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.

[2] D. Spaeth. 3D printing is changing the face of multiple industries. ECN: Electronic Component News 61, no. 9 (October 2017): Page 21.

[3] 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.

[4] Ibid

[5] 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.

[6] Ibid.

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13 thoughts on “Breaking the Molds: 3D-Printing and The Future of Shoemaking

  1. I don’t believe we’ll move to a 100% personalized footwear world in the near term. My reasoning is based on the high-volume nature of the shoe industry and the lack of value add for customization in non-performance shoes. Americans purchased 7.5 shoes per capita in 2013 [1]. This is a significant figure and a make to order approach like 3D printing would have difficulty satisfying this type of demand without major investment. Additionally, for casual, non-performance shoes, I don’t believe perfect fit is as pressing a requirement. On the luxury end there are a lot of shoes that sell because of the hand-crafted approach used and I believe that will maintain its customer appeal going forward. In summary, I could see a world soon where high-performance shoes are printed to ensure a fit that enhances performance, but I believe the non-performance category (particularly the luxury shoe markets) will remain with the traditional methods of manufacturing for a long time.

    Sources:
    [1] Footwear – US Consumers Bought 7.5 Pairs of Shoes per Capita per Year.” APLF, American Apparel & Footwear Association , 20 Jan. 2015, http://www.aplf.com/en-us/leather-fashion-news-and-blog/news/22557/footwear-us-consumers-bought-7-5-pairs-of-shoes-per-capita-per-year.

    1. I appreciate the nuance you brought to the answer Ti, teasing out customer preferences in the luxury segment vs non-luxury. I definitely agree that this idea of perfect shoe fit is a phenomena that only affects and/or will appeal to a select part of the population. However, you could argue that 3D printing will be revolutionary from a cost perspective, allowing cheaper models to be produced (customizable or not), furthering consumer habits of buying more shoes per year as shoes decrease in price!

  2. As Ti mentions, in the short-term, personalization would be more valuable for high-performance shoes than for casual ones. This group of customers would mainly be composed of people who care about their sport or gym performance or of individuals who are looking for a footwear solution that, by adapting to their foot physiognomy, prevents injuries or chronic pains related to the use of uncomfortable footwear. Even though they are not 100% of the market, this segment provides footwear companies with a significant volume to justify the commercialization of fully personalized solutions at a higher margin and thus pay-out the investments in 3D manufacturing methods. However, I believe that in the mid-term the developments of additive manufacturing would significantly reduce the current production cost of this technology. These advancements will unleash additional opportunities to offer personalization in more casual or even luxury products, giving the customers the possibility also to design their shoes. I think that people will be willing to pay a premium to take that “ownership” over the product they are buying and that this premium fee would be high enough to cover the gap between traditional and additive manufacturing costs.

  3. I agree, shifting towards a 100% personalized footwear world seems unlikely. Adidas has spent years branding itself as a high-quality footwear and sports performance brand. Will 3D manufacturing compromise the quality of their products? Or, does 3D printing actually provide opportunities to enhance quality? In either case, I think the answer to that question will be especially significant as they think about marketing these products to consumers. As for overcoming the traditional manufacturing method, I think there is certainly potential there. If companies can figure out a way to scale 3D manufacturing at a low-cost, it’s very likely that we could see a shift away from traditional manufacturing.

  4. My view on 100% product personalization and 100% 3D printing production model is perhaps more optimistic than those above 🙂 From a quality perspective, I don’t see how, if the machine uses the same raw material and follows the same construction method, the product quality would be any inferior to that of manually produced shoes. In fact, I think 3D printed shoes would probably have higher consistency and adherence to the design. Second, from a cost perspective, I think it will only be a matter of time until the machines’ efficiencies surpass that of manual labor. Let us not underestimate the pace of technological advancements – I would not be surprised if 3D printing becomes the norm in manufacturing in the next decade. When the time comes, I agree with the observation made in the article that, countries like China and India will lose their appeal to manufacturers as low cost labor markets. However, considering that firms will want to produce close to their end consumers, and China and India both have large growing middle classes, the next generation of factories may very well remain in those countries.

  5. Really interesting article!

    I do agree with Ti, Leo and Leila that 100% customized shoes seems unlikely. However, I do agree with Charlotte that provided its lower shipping costs and assuming direct manufacturing costs continue to decrease as the technology gets more and more refined, I can imagine a world where 3D printing does become the norm in sneakers manufacturing and it’s not just the “cool kids” wearing 3D-printed shoes. My question is, if/when 3D printing becomes mainstream, will the cool thing then be to wear “vintage” traditionally manufactured shoes?

  6. I agree with the comments above that 100% personalized products are unlikely in the near term. 3D printing has still a long way to go in terms of meeting quality standards vs traditional manufacturing in order to focus in customization. The layering method of production results in a few extra working steps to make the product look high end enough for commercialization of the product. In addition, there 3D printing process have considerable effects in smoothness of the product.
    In sum, I believe that there is much development to 3D printing to make this production customer ready, once they have this problem figured out, customization becomes more feasible.

  7. Thank you for a very interesting read. There is definitely an upward trend for using 3D printing in the clothing Industry in general. A number of high-end fashion designers have created recently fashion shows with 3D printed garments. While I do not think we could reach 100% 3D printed footwear in the short or medium term, I see number of reasons for 3D printing to be pick up quickly including:
    – Cost efficiency; for both manufacturers and consumers
    – Sustainability; by using recycled materials and lower production waste
    – Customization; this will be a very appealing to the segment that wouldn’t mind paying a price premium to design their own shoe

  8. Thank you for this interesting piece. I think that in the shoemaking industry, personalization and additive manufacturing must be considered separately. While a trend toward the more prevalent use of 3D printing seems likely, I imagine it will be used just as much, if not more, for creating shoes of standard sizes and fits as it will for creating personalized designs. As its use is scaled up, I suspect the prices of 3D-printed shoes to decrease. Even assuming this eventual price decrease, I think that within the category of 3D-printed shoes, non-personalized versions will always be available as a lower-price option for people to choose over personalized pairs. I suspect that non-personalized shoes will always have demand on behalf of those desiring the freedom to return retail items, parents of small children who have to buy many pairs for growing feet and who want the option to pass down pairs to younger kids, and those who give shoes as gifts.

  9. Interesting read! I agree that additive manufacturing will increase in market share over time as initial kinks get ironed out (e.g. poor tactility, slow manufacturing speed, currently high cost) and I am pretty bullish on it eventually reaching full market potential. While it may take decades for speed and cost to drop to equivalent levels of mass manufactured goods, it will inherently offer higher value for the customer than an non-customized shoe. There can be arguments be made for some consumers not wanting high degrees of personalization(e.g. people are buying specific brands for a reason and value their recognizability). But as additive manufacturing can keep designs consistent AND offer more comfortable footbeds or shoes that feel worn in on day one, there is little reason for a consumer to choose a good that has not been personalized for them. It will be a long especially when considering that the speed of production needs to be almost equivalent to picking up a pair of shoes off the rack.

  10. Thanks for this informative article! I agree with comments above that we must evaluate additive manufacturing and 100% personalization separately. I am bullish on a near-future with full productive via additive manufacturing as it reduces error and decreases the human cost of labour. This industry has been socially impacted by various awareness campaigns on working conditions in production factories and 3D printing can mitigate that entirely and reduce dependence on labour in developing markets. As for 100% personalization, I don’t see it as likely in the medium term but I foresee a long-term vision of 100% personalization for most of our purchases, and footwear is one of the more relevant applications of this trend. If Adidas embraced this fully, it could place them in a highly competitive position in the long-term!

  11. Thanks for your article. I agree that one huge benefit of the on-demand model is it will reduce excess inventory. One issue I see that may need to be addressed is return rates. Will product return rates go up? For example, since customers are not used to wearing such a customized shoe, they may find it uncomfortable for one reason or another. What will Adidas’ return policy be, if it cannot re-sell the customized return product?

    Second, how will channel partners react? Adidas is a widely distributed brand and depends heavily on its wholesale partners (i.e. foot locker, finish line). Will wholesale partners be cut out, forced to carry the 3D technology, or measure the customer’s foot in store and endure a lag-time to receive JIT inventory from Adidas? If Adidas plans to do the last, can channel partners then share the customer’s data with competitors such as Nike.

    These are just a few questions I had about Adidas’ execution plan, which I believe is key as it competes in the highly competitive shoe industry where Nike is the dominant player.

  12. While I agree that broad based adoption of 3D printing across both performance and non-performance shoes is unlikely in the near term, I think this is a tremendous opportunity across all types of footwear in the medium term. Given that price points will be very high during the ramp up phase, it makes sense to start with performance footwear, a sub sector in which branding and sponsorship can have a large impact on consumer price elasticity. Once manufacturing costs begin to decline, the non-performance footwear space presents huge addressable market. Given the high barriers to entry imposed by 3D printing, Adidas can ultimately use additive manufacturing to further penetrate the non-performance shoe market at scale.

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