3D Printing’s Role in Nike’s Strategic Growth
In 2017, global shoe and apparel behemoth, Nike, unveiled a new corporate initiative, titled the Consumer Direct Offense, meant to generate the next wave of long-term company growth and profitability. The driving force of the Consumer Direct Offense is Nike’s Triple Double strategy, which includes three pillars: 2X Innovation, 2X Speed and 2X Direct . 3D printing appears to be at the core of the first two pillars.
2X Innovation is Nike’s goal to “double the cadence and impact of innovation”, and 2X Speed represents the need to “double speed to market by reducing the average product creation timeline by over 50 percent” . Additive manufacturing accomplishes both objectives by facilitating the “rapid prototyping” process, allowing Nike’s product development teams to create customized shoe prototypes in a matter of hours, instead of months through traditional methods .
The Technology Behind Nike’s Innovation
Nike first began experimenting with 3D printing in 2013 when it released the Nike Vapor Laser Talon; touted as the “first-ever football cleat built using 3D printing technology” . However, the company did not fully invest in additive manufacturing until 2016 through a partnership with information technology firm HP . According to Nike’s President of Innovation, Tom Clarke: “[We] are excited to partner with HP to accelerate and scale our existing capabilities as we continue to explore new ways to manufacture performance products to help athletes reach their full potential” .
That year, Nike developed a customized track spike, the Nike Zoom Superfly Flyknit, by rapid prototyping for American sprinter Allyson Felix before the Rio 2016 Olympics. At Nike, collaborating with high-profile professional athletes for product development is paramount. As Mark Parker, Nike’s CEO, explains: “Always, always, the elite athlete still leads our design. What we learn from them is who we are” . 3D printing will define the product development for the next generation of elite Nike products.
The expanded investment in 3D printing has already proven beneficial for Nike. In Spring 2018, Nike developed the Nike Flyprint – the first shoe in performance footwear with a 3D-printed textile upper . In collaboration with world-class marathoner, Eliud Kipchoge, the Nike Flyprint translated complex athlete performance data from the Nike Sports Research Lab into prototype iterations with unprecedented quickness and precision .
Monetizing their investments in additive manufacturing is a short and medium-term objective for Nike. The brand recently publicized they are preparing to commercialize their 3D-printed products like never before with the global release of the Zoom VaporFly Elite Flyprint 3D in Q1 of 2019 . Nike is making a big bet that their aspirational consumers will value the additional product benefits 3D printing introduces; such as being the lightest and most breathable performance shoes Nike has ever produced. Furthermore, 3D printing will continue to be a focus of Nike due to its pivotal role in accomplishing the brand’s Consumer Direct Offense and Triple Double strategy, which the company projects to drive sustained high-single digit revenue growth over the next five years .
Of course, Nike’s business doesn’t operate in isolation. Footwear competitors, Adidas, New Balance and Under Armour are all leveraging 3D printing for product development and are in various stages of commercializing 3D printed shoe lines, with Adidas widely considered the industry leader in this area of innovation . Nike must take immediate steps to avoid falling too far behind their rivals.
Recommendations and Questions
First, I recommend that Nike significantly expands its 3D printing prototyping to incorporate a wider roster of elite athlete endorsers. More mainstream athletes should be involved with developing customized shoes to address their unique performance challenges. If a Nike endorsee like Cristiano Ronaldo were to have a 3D-printed shoe there would be an incredible buzz around the product.
Additionally, Nike should invest in promoting these 3D-printed products through advertisements, branded content and other forms of storytelling to attract and engage with consumers. Creating value through marketing promotions is undoubtedly Nike’s strength. Eliud Kipchoge, the marathoner that helped develop the original Nike Flyprint, advocated that the shoe was the lightest he’d ever worn and felt the shoe would give him an advantage in the 2018 London Marathon . Kipchoge went on to win the marathon while wearing Nike’s innovative 3D-printed shoes. These are the stories Nike needs to authentically tell.
Nevertheless, there are critical questions outstanding that will impact Nike’s ability to maximize 3D printing. Will 3D printing factor into Nike’s third element of the Triple Double strategy: 2X Direct? This is the brand’s direct-to-consumer and customization initiative. According to a 2017 retail consumer survey, 95% of shoppers are looking forward to purchasing products created through 3D printing . However, Nike must also answer whether additive manufacturing can be scaled enough to satisfy consumer demand? Despite these uncertainties, 3D printing projects to be central to Nike’s strategy to grow its shoe wear and apparel empire.
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