Printing: Speed

Adidas Sets Out to Bring 3D-Printed Running Shoes to the Masses

Introduction

“Ultimately, we hope to do this in all of our products. So today, it’s a statement. Tomorrow, it’s for everyone.” – Eric Liedtke, Head of Global Brands for Adidas [1]

One of the footwear companies leading the adoption of 3D printing technology in the sporting industry, Adidas has recently released its first shoe with a 3D printed midsole. Adidas has emerged as the front runner in the race towards printing shoes en masse, pledging to ramp up production of their Futurecraft 4D to 100,000 pairs by the end of 2018 [1].

 

Current Uses and Competition

3D printing is widely used in the footwear industry for prototyping. Until recently, creating a single prototype was a very manual process that, with shipping to and from the factories, could take four to six weeks per iteration. 3D printing has cut this process down to one or two days and reduced the number of people needed from a dozen, to just a couple [2][3]. A designer now works with a CAD designer to create a 3D file of their design, prints it overnight, and has a physical product in hand to review within days. The process it is quicker, more effective, and more environmentally friendly, and has therefore been adopted across the industry.

Driven by the desire to better address the needs of a large variety of customers, and the aspiration to keep innovating in the footwear space, several of the industry leaders have now experimented with using 3D printing to create customized shoes. Nike, New Balance and Under Armor started by creating customized spike plates and cleats [4]. More recently, Nike also released the first printed upper, the Nike Flyprint [5]. So far, however, 3D printed shoes have only been released in very limited quantities.

 

Adidas’s Edge

The Futurecraft 4D set Adidas apart from its competitors as it uses a new, faster, and more efficient 3D printing technology called Continuous Liquid Interface Production [1]. Instead of the top down, printing in layers method that is typically used, this new approach uses a very precisely directed light to harden liquid resin and create a solid but flexible lattice design well suited to absorb shock [6]. The design of the midsole also lends itself particularly well to modifications, and therefore customization; The weave of the shoe can be tightened to form a denser and more supportive structure in whatever part of the shoe an athlete needs it most [6].

 

Challenges

Adidas still has significant challenges to overcome before switching over to 3D printing across their product line. For one, while 3D printing requires less manual labor, it still necessitates the work of very qualified CAD designers to create a 3D model every time a new piece is to be printed [7]. Second, the materials that can be printed are still limited compared to the range of textiles, foams and plastics currently being used in traditional manufacturing, therefore this technology limits the range of products that Adidas can make. Thirdly, each machine can only work on one piece at a time and takes several hours at minimum, so this process is not nearly as time nor space efficient as a production line. Furthermore, these printers are very expensive, so the products sell for quite a bit more than the typical running shoes, limiting their market potential. Despite these limitations, Adidas is determined to be the first mover in this category. They have already ramped up their production by purchasing enough printers to make a million 3D printed shoes [8].

 

Recommendations

Though this technology is not yet economically scalable, I would recommend that Adidas keep pushing forward. As an early mover in this space, their investment in these new techniques will pay off as they patent their discoveries and ensure several years of head start on their competitors. Though I am not convinced that there is really a need for customization for most people, it is certainly beneficial to injury-prone runners, and can be incrementally beneficial to top performing athletes, so there will be people willing to pay the premium for their products. At the very least, today’s consumer is very interested in the technology that goes into their product, and this initiative has been a great marketing tool for Adidas. Investment in this space will help to further the technology and make it more accessible, and eventually Adidas will reach their goal of using 3D printing across their product line.

 

As Adidas considers how much to invest in 3D printing technology, they should consider the following: How big is the need to have customized shoes? Should they reserve this technology for only their most premium products? Would they get more bang for their buck if they focus on evolving more traditional materials?

(787 words)

 

 

Sources

1                Annie Pilon, “Small Business Trends: Could 3D Printed Shoes Hint at Future Opportunities for Small Businesses?” Newstex Entrepreneurship Blogs, Chatham: Newstex. Apr 10, 2017.

2                Balinski, Brent. “Nike and Adidas speed up prototyping with 3D printing,” Manufacturers’ Monthly (2013).

3                Jopson, Barney “New stamping ground for Nike and Adidas as 3D shoes kick off,” FT.com; London (2013).

4                Caliendo, Heather “3D-Printed Sneakers Gaining Traction,” Plastics Technology (2018).

5                “What is Nike Flyprint?” Nike News, https://news.nike.com/news/nike-flyprint-3d-printed-textile, accessed Nov 10, 2018.

6                Fitz Tepper “Adidas’ latest 3D-printed shoe puts mass production within sight” Techcrunch.com (2016) https://techcrunch.com/2017/04/07/adidas-latest-3d-printed-shoe-puts-mass-production-within-sight/, accessed Nov 10, 2018.

7                Holweg, Matthias “The Limits of 3D Printing,” Harvard Business Review, (2015).

8                Chang, Andria “How Adidas Plans To Bring 3D Printing To The Mass,” Forbes.com, (2018).

Photo Source: https://www.carbon3d.com/stories/carbon-lattice-innovation-the-adidas-story/

 

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25 thoughts on “Printing: Speed

  1. Talk about customization (!). A 3D printer that can print a shoe to PERFECTLY fit your unique foot. As I think about the use cases, especially in light of Nike’s case today, I agree that this technology could be incredible powerful when it comes to elite athletes. The endorsement of this technology by elite athletes would too promote the aspirational nature of this product and technology, allowing the product to reach far beyond its functional value and tap into the emotional value. I would assume other brands, aside from Adidas, are too investing in this technology but I would also encourage Adidas to think of the best way to integrate this technology into its current system and how to best allow 3D printing to complement and enhance its existing production system.

  2. Very cool! It seems to me that this product better serves pain points in the prototype phase more so than in product production, given the high time and cost barriers with prototyping and the fairly low demand for customization among consumers. Given that this 3D printer has limitations on inputs, could widespread adoption of this technology limit innovation? On the consumer side, I am weary that Adidas has overspent on early versions of this technology – like buying up thousands of the iPhone 8 knowing that the iPhone X is around the corner. What is the benefit in the eyes of consumers in buying a 3D printed shoe versus a production line shoe if the consumer has no need for customization?

  3. You raise some great points regarding the true potential of 3D printing. Is this something that will really change the shoe landscape, or is this a fad that should be limited to prototyping early concepts? After reading your piece, I’ve been thinking about how 3D printed shoes would change the purchasing process for consumer. Most purchase journeys begin in a store or online — you know what type of shoe you’re looking for, but want to test size, fit, and look. Would a 3D printed shoe purchase require a change in customer behavior? For example, would a consumer need to add a step in the process and visit a retail location to get properly fit for a shoe? Alternatively, if this change in behavior poses too much of an attrition risk, how might ADIDAS recycle shoes that do not fit / are returned by unsatisfied consumers?

  4. There is a lot of well-founded skepticism around the value of mass customization to the consumer, especially regarding shoes. I agree with Christie, though, that there is huge potential for Adidas to be a first mover and change the purchase cycle Dan references. I think Adidas should be creative and explore other technologies that can further disrupt this purchase process. If it is possible, maybe Adidas costumers could send in either measurements or pictures of their feet to create a customer profiles that can then inform customized 3d-printer shoes in all categories. While obviously there are significant costs, the ability to produce shoes customized to a consumer would increase the lifetime value of any consumer by locking them into Adidas products.

  5. I completely agree with what has been said – there is huge opportunity here for Adidas to be the first mover and I am optimistic about consumer demand for customized sneakers. As with any early mega trend, it’s also interesting to think about the rate of change this technology is undergoing. Specifically, how much faster and cheaper this technology will get in the coming years and how Adidas might be factoring that in to their plans. We are still early in the evolution of 3D printing and already you see MIT developing a printer that is 10 times faster than existing options (http://news.mit.edu/2017/new-3-d-printer-10-times-faster-commercial-counterparts-1129). Imagine if the processing time goes from a few days to a few minutes – in that case Adidas could leverage their leadership to reimagine their entire store experience, printing shoes on the spot. The cost going down would also impact if Adidas considers using this technology for standard or premium product.

  6. After reading this, I’m curious about how the growth of 3D printing & customization will affect Adidas’ value proposition for consumers. Historically, customers have trusted shoe companies like Adidas and Nike to be the experts in shoe design. The designers have known best about the technical nuances of the designs and have had access to the most research on what matters for comfort and performance. If Adidas goes down a path of functional customization via 3D printing (beyond tweaking style elements), I wonder if their credibility will begin to breakdown. I think that the company will need to set strategic guardrails around what they allow to be customizable, in order to preserve their brand equity.

  7. I completely agree with your skepticism regarding the need to have fully customizable shoes for the mass market and using 3D printing to accomplish this. I believe that while this may be an excellent solution for extremely niche consumers (ex. high performance athlete), it may not be feasible or even necessary for the average user. Along those lines, I question the true value addition to Adidas’ product using this technology and whether it is worth the large investment versus, as you rightly point out, continuing to invest in existing production processes.

  8. TomTom – nice work here. From a TOM perspective, it seems that 3D printing is great for the innovation process as it greatly reduces the “throughput time” of producing a prototype. However, I worry that the mass produced 3D shoes may introduce quite a few operations issues. Given one of the strengths of 3D printing is that it allows customization, I think it would be wise to offer that to customers (especially as the assembly line is currently cheaper for a mass produced model). That said, allowing everyone to customize his or her shoes could prove to be a logistics nightmare as the number of Adidas SKUs effectively becomes infinity. For that reason, this may remain a niche product until the 3D printing cost structure changes materially and replaces the mass production assembly line.

  9. I tend to agree with John Doe that it seems the current market potential for 3D printing shoes is in the niche consumer space. However, I disagree with questioning the value. Much like automotive companies create high performance vehicles to drive and showcase their innovation, Adidas has the potential to prove this technology with partnerships with, for example, high performance athletes who are willing to pay an extremely high premium for percentage gains in performance. I think it will be crucial for Adidas to be a first mover in the space and use 3D as the opportunity to drive new innovation, with the aim of eventually improving the technology to economically replace current production processes.

  10. 3D printing shoes are very cool. I would see that coming as 3D printing technology becomes cheaper. On the other end of the 3D printing shoes, there needs to have an easy way for a user to scan their feet. I think the new iphones with the dual camera could be a good solution to this problem. Maybe there is an opportunity attacking the problem from this angle as well.

  11. This is a really engaging conversation! One (perhaps entirely implausible) variation on this theme is whether it would ever be sensible for Adidas to market the 3D printers themselves to premium customers – in effect, selling the printers to customers, thereby allowing them to make their own Adidas shoes. Customers would only be allowed to make shoes for themselves (i.e., machines would be programmed for only one person’s foot), and they would have to source materials exclusively from Adidas, but it could make the technology a ‘must-have’ for premium footwear customers and provide another justification for continued development of 3D printing technology beyond merely prototypes?

  12. Interesting article! I agree with Mr Daniel Knight from the comment above. While the technology is emerging and adidas is already managing to produce, market and sell limited batches, I would look into the long-run evolution of the footwear industry. I have confidence that skilled engineers will in the end create a time/cost efficient solution to print shoes or soles with additive manufacturing technology. However, I would reframe the question – it’s not “how can we print (fast)?”, but rather “what should we print (that will add value)?” I think adidas has to fundamentally rethink purchasing experience for customised shoes. It’s not just about adding colourful stitches or my dog’s portrait on the sole, but ultimately it’s about this perfect fit for my foot shape, gait, weight, etc. To be able to print the perfect shoe, you need more than just a top printer. You need to measure the customer’s unique profile, process it and come up with a perfect solution. Only then print. I see a huge potential on the market – once you measure the customer, you have a high chance to retain her for long. But you need the right store format, qualified staff, flawless measuring experience, and talented engineers and designers to create perfect CAD algorithm for printing.

  13. Thanks for this interesting article TomTom. I am a little unclear on what is exactly the value of 3D printing to Adidas, as they are not using it for customization today. As you said, today, 3D printing is still less efficient than using molding in mass production. Why would they introduce 3D printed shoes that are not customized?

    I find your first question very fascinating – how big is the need to have customized shoes? I think it depends on what kind of shoe it is and how frequently it is used by the customer. For a star athlete, their sports shoes are always worn and very important to them, that’s why their shoes are custom made. For the general public, what kind of shoes are the most important and frequently used?

  14. Fashion is one of the industries that would be most quickly disrupted by 3D printing as it is most easily implementable and the industry already is driven primarily by design. The bottleneck I see would be the development of printable material incorporating the technologies that Adidas is trying to realize, and whether the printing process would change the material given the heating/cooling treatment of it — it would be interesting to know what limitations exist currently in what can be printed and not. I think it is in Adidas’ interest to expand the use of 3D printing, in the form of customizing shoes regardless of need; the increased use of 3D printing would contribute to reducing the cost of producing the technology and encourage its widespread use to meet more complex needs.

  15. This sounds like an interesting example where the cost structure of a technology seems to define its near-term use case. As described in the case, given the state of 3d printing, it is not the most economical way to mass produce shoes. The viability of the technology as a means of mass production will be dependent on how quickly they can get down the experience / cost curve. The heavy investment in the technology by ADIDAS today is a signal of their belief in what the future cost structure could become! It does, however, provide an interesting opportunity to produce customized shoes to consumers at a high price (compensating for the cost of manufacturing). This could be an interesting segment that they could address in the form of elite athletes and other high-end consumers.

  16. Fantastic Article! In response to your questions I believe that Adidas should reserve their technology for the most premium products. Given the current upfront costs associated with using this technology I don’t think Adidas will make a return on their investment without charging a premium for their products. In addition, these custom shoes are targeted to a certain consumer who is willing to pay for customization and wants the product to remain exclusive. I worry that Adidas might alienate their core customer if they use this technology for their everyday shoes.

  17. This is an interesting and cool article. Thank you very much! I would agree with you that the company should continue to invest in 3D printing and patent their findings along the way. The US sneaker industry is growing at 2.6%, which is not that fast and basically slightly ahead of the US economy.(1) This new technology and patents could give the company some barrier to entry as the industry matures and develops which would enable them to start taking share from other under invested players.

    (1) “Footwear – United States | Statista Market Forecast”. 2018. Statista. https://www.statista.com/outlook/11000000/109/footwear/united-states.

  18. TomTom – thank you for sharing. One question I have in addition to those you raised is the value of 3D-printing in gaining a competitive advantage over Adidas’s competitors. The running shoe industry is highly competitive, and you wrote that Nike, New Balance, and Under Armor (a recent entrant into the space) are all using 3D printing in some capacity already. Will Adidas be able to develop an edge or will all shoe companies offer a similar set of customization options?

  19. Reading the text, I was already biased towards the super positivity of Adidas moving towards the 3D printing. However, after reading this article, I completely agree with many of the pain points addressed and questions raised to guarantee the success of moving forward with this initiative. I would be in favor of Adidas to move forward in the R&D, specially as a competitive advantage and point of difference, and would focus more in high athletes, as mentioned in some of the comments already or a very premium class of costumers. Therefore, I would allow this service to be done in a special boutique office, or be a type of product that Adidas goes to the house of people or athletes clubs to offer this service, obviously charging accordingly. I think it can get a very special niche market.

  20. TomTom, yes!

    +1 to the above comments that this might be a solution in search of a problem. If the problem is worrying about getting a good fit, I’d be really interested in seeing a technology that helps improve my confidence that a shoe is a perfect fit for me, even if that shoe is not (fully) customized. Tempted to post a picture of my foot in lieu of a comment.

  21. Thanks for sharing this TomTom – very interesting article! New Balance, though using different techniques and a different 3D printer supplier [1], is doing something very similar and actually ramping it up at scale as we speak. I had a conversation with Maxim Lobovsky (CEO of Formlabs, 3D manufacturing partner of New Balance) last week on the MIT 100K Pitching Contest where he told me that the right parameter to evaluate speed is “manufacturing cost for x units in y time period”, including the cost of the machinery and labor. Formlabs (see Formlabs.com) is producing their small 3D printers at such a low cost (only ~$3000/machine) that large corporations such as New Balance or Adidas could run hundreds in parallel. I wonder why you write “Though this technology is not yet economically scalable” and whether I am overlooking something.

    Happy to continue the discussion!

    [1] Formlabs, “Formlabs and New Balance Come Together to 3D Print High-Performance Footwear”, Jun. 05, 2017, https://formlabs.com/company/press/formlabs-and-new-balance-come-together-3d-print-high-performance/, accessed November 2018

  22. Great post! While I think Adidas, like many other companies, can leverage 3D printing for prototyping, I certainly agree with your point that this is likely not a viable production method beyond very high end shoes. Candidly, even in that case, I am not sure there is much of a use for the technology given production costs are already extremely low and 3D printing is only starting to gain some traction as a manufacturing tool in higher ticket items (e.g. Airplane parts) where the longer lead times are less of an issue. Overall, I’m not sure it makes a ton of sense for Adidas to invest heavily in its 3D capabilities but it will be interesting to watch this evolve!

  23. Super cool tech and well-written article! I’m left with a couple questions: 1. what is the path toward cost-parity with existing manufacturing techniques? I understand drivers are advanced technical labor and limited output rate of the machines, but I’m curious when the million shoe capacity level will be achieved? 2. I know it’s still early, but I’m curious if Adidas has a plan to support the communities in which its labor force currently work as this manufacturing innovation takes hold. Ultimately, this type of 3D printing will provide not only enhanced customizability but also cost savings as the price of inputs (e.g., labor) are driven down. When that happens, many manual laborers that Adidas has employed will be laid off. As a larger societal challenge, how can we redistribute the increased economic profits to Adidas from lower costs to communities to avoid the worse detriments of job displacement? This certainly is a challenge extending beyond Adidas (and arguably its responsibilities), but I’ll be curious to see if / how Adidas chooses to address this reality as it approaches.

  24. I think customization of the products through 3D printing complements Adidas’s strength in providing fashionable but functional shoes. That said, due to the nature of this industry where there is strong loyalty to a particular brand, and the visibility of the affiliation with the brand is important, loyal customers may not want a customized product that is not easily identifiable as a particular Adidas shoe design. In addition, on the operational side, I would wonder how you balance the mass production of these 3D printed shoes with the more traditionally manufactured shoes

  25. When I initially read the headline for this article, I was immediately skeptical of the benefits of a 3D-printed shoe. What is the true advantage of mass-producing 3D-printed shoes other than the aesthetics. However, reading through the article and comments made me think of how 3D-printed shoes can upend the way shoes’ supply chains work. Currently, shoes are manufactured at a remote location (perhaps multiple remote locations) and then shipped to the consumer. With 3D-printing, you can move the manufacturing process significantly closer to the consumer (heck, even at the point of sale!), significantly reducing lead times and inventory holding costs. While I agree the need for CAD designers for new/unique designs that didn’t exist before, I feel like that would be a relatively low fixed cost that will be spread out over a large customer base for custom-printed shoes.

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