Size You: Can Adidas use 3-D Printing to Deliver Custom Sized Shoes to the Masses?

Adidas wants to make 3-D printed shoes to give you the perfect fit with your perfect look. Is this the beginning of an industry revolution or a niche product for those who can afford it?

According to the Harvard Business Review, “A new era in additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, is at hand,” and “[additive manufacturing] has made it possible affordably produce a much broader range of things – from the soles of running shoes to turbine blades – often in much higher volumes.”[1]  With potential to offer customized sizes and styles in parallel with increased factory automation and flexible production, Adidas is aggressively pursuing additive manufacturing technology for shoes.[2]  Will these advantages outweigh the costs of implementation and how quickly should Adidas transition production from traditional to additive manufacturing?

Adidas has recently partnered with Carbon Inc. to use continuous interface liquid production technology (CLIP) to create a midsole constructed from a single piece of elastomer, fine-tuned to expand and condense, and to vary in density and pliability.[3][4] CLIP production has paved the way for printing manufacturing grade parts that was previously unachievable with legacy additive manufacturing technology.  Additionally, the technology enables higher performance and composition than traditionally manufactured midsoles.[5]

Photo: Carbon’s M2 3-D Printer. Cait Oppermann for the Wall Street Journal

The benefits that bespoke shoes provide to consumers necessitate that brands like Adidas explore their development.  3-D printing technology enables shoes to be made for a particular person; his/her specific sport; and his/her age, weight and size.[6]  Consumers who are in between sizes or whose feet do not follow the traditional mold will be able to own shoes that fit perfectly.  Additionally, Adidas states that customers looking for a unique look will be able to “create their own completely custom, one-of-kind Adidas shoes designed to their own specifications online.”[7]  Not only do consumers benefit from the technology, but opportunities for Adidas to improve operations are vast.

To achieve these ends, Adidas is targeting to manufacture one million shoes per year with additive manufacturing by 2020[12]– a small number compared its traditional production of over one million shoes per day.  However, Adidas plans to scale aggressively.  James Carnes, Adidas’s vice president of strategy, stated, “The plan will put us as the (world’s) biggest producer of 3D printed products.”[13]  In the short term, Adidas should focus on process automation to reduce labor costs and will enable production to move from low-cost manufacturing countries to regions near the end consumer, further reducing manufacturing and delivery time.

For customization, Adidas is experimenting with scanning customers feet in stores to create data for production.[14]  Instead, they should utilize the resources already in the hands of consumers.  For example, they could partner with Apple and use the FaceID sensors on iPhones to create a 3D model of a customer’s foot which could be uploaded to an app, in which shoes could be further customized and purchased in one seamless experience.

There remains one giant hurdle to overcome – cost.  Adidas’s first major release of additive manufactured shoes, the non-customized Futurecraft 4D, retail at $300 per pair.[15]  For now, they remain a niche product for early adopters and well-funded athletes. It remains to be seen if Adidas can bring the costs down.  The value to the consumer will stay limited until fully customizable shoes are available at comparable costs.

How should Adidas pursue this technology going forward?  Should they burn the boats and go all in?  This would be extremely risky but provide impetus for them to be the market leader and force their team to develop solutions to drive costs down. Conversely, should they incrementally transition their lines to additive manufacturing?  This would be less risky but could detract from their focus and leave them vulnerable to competition.

(773 Words)

[1]Richard A. D’Aveni, “The 3-D Printing Playbook,” Harvard Business Review(July-August 2018), 106-113.

[2]Dennis Green, “Adidas just opened a futuristic new factor – and it will dramatically change how shoes are sold,” Business Insider, April 25, 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/adidas-high-tech-speedfactory-begins-production-2018-4, accessed November, 2018.

[3]Isabel Flower, “Is Mass Customization the Future of Footwear?” The Wall Street Journal, October, 24, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/is-mass-customization-the-future-of-footwear-1508850000, accessed November 2018.

[4]“On-demand Printing using Liquid Materials”, Frost & Sullivan, accessed November, 2018.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid.

[7]Ibid., Dennis Green, “Adidas just opened a futuristic new factor – and it will dramatically change how shoes are sold,” Business Insider, April 25, 2018, accessed November, 2018.

[8]3D printed sports shoes are more about your wallet than your feet (2017). Cape Town: SyndiGate Media Inc. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1965602647?accountid=11311

[9]Ibid. On-demand Printing using Liquid Materials, Frost & Sullivan, accessed November, 2018.

[10]Mckinsey & Company, January 2014, “3-D printing takes shape,” https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/operations/our-insights/3-d-printing-takes-shape, accessed November 2018.

[11]Katherine Bourzac, “3-D-Printed Sneakers, Tailored to Your Foot,” MIT Technology Review, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/604058/3-d-printed-sneakers-tailored-to-your-foot/#comments, accessed November 2018.

[12]Ibid., Dennis Green, “Adidas just opened a futuristic new factor – and it will dramatically change how shoes are sold,” Business Insider, April 25, 2018, accessed November, 2018.

[13]Andria Cheng, “How Adidas Plans to Bring 3D Printing to The Masses,” Forbes, May 22, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/andriacheng/2018/05/22/with-adidas-3d-printing-may-finally-see-its-mass-retail-potential/#45b122074a60, accessed November, 2018.

[14]Ibid.

[15]Ibid.

Cover Image: Adidas via Business Insider

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7 thoughts on “Size You: Can Adidas use 3-D Printing to Deliver Custom Sized Shoes to the Masses?

  1. I agree that going all in on this endeavor would be a big, risky bet. The concept of 3D printing perfect fit shoes is an interesting one, though. Maybe in the future this will be the way we manufacture our clothes and shoes. Tailors will be out of business! Imagine having your perfect suit 3D printed to fit you especially. I think it’s wise for Adidas to get in on this as a niche part of their business and see how the consumer reacts. In the next few years they could transition some of their lines over to this type of manufacturing, like you said – combined with the technology we currently have in our hands. $300 isn’t all that different than some of the fancier sneakers I see people wearing to class (often at a minimum around the $150 range).

  2. This essay fully captures the impact 3D printing has, and will continue to have, on the shoe apparel industry. The author discusses the customization benefits of this new medium along with the cost hurdles the company has to overcome. Seeing as 3D shoes are retailed at $300, the author cites that “they remain a niche product for early adopters and well-funded athletes” and “it remains to be seen if Adidas can bring the costs down.” While I agree with this argument, I think the author should consider if driving down costs is currently plausible or if it is something that will be accomplished in the long-term (10+ years) as 3D printing becomes more mainstream. Costs will be difficult to drive down, as not only are these shoes more expensive to produce in terms of manufacturing, but also, they are more expensive to produce. For example, in this article on Nike, https://www.fool.com/investing/2016/10/27/nike-incs-man-rev-project-how-nike-plans-to-overha.aspx, it is clear that hiring practices will shirt as creating and designing the shoe becomes even more important. I wonder how this will impact Adidas and their ability to bring 3D shoes into the mainstream. Overall, I agree with the author’s argument and how the industry will forever change due to this megatrend.

  3. Fascinating read, well done! Reflecting on your questions, I think the go all-in strategy is very risky and would likely result in high short-term costs related to the cancellation of labour contracts with suppliers and shutting down and moving production facilities from current locations. I agree that a more moderated, incremental transition by line is a viable option and provides Adidas with the ability to either cancel the project if not economically viable or tweak certain aspects of it to address customer concerns. An incremental transition is necessary due to the potential risks related to quality control or production problems.

    Regarding the $300 price tag, I disagree that this cost needs to necessarily come down for the shoes to be successful, as was mentioned by TOMStudent2020. If Adidas is able to produce a shoe that lasts longer, fits better, looks better, doesn’t rely on cheap labour to be produced, and can be delivered to a customer within a few hours or a few days, customers will come and will be willing to pay for it.

  4. Great piece! Nike and Under Armour also seem to be heavily focused on additive manufacturing (https://www.baltimoresun.com/business/under-armour-blog/bs-bz-under-armour-customize-20171206-story.html), which makes me believe that additive manufacturing will become the new norm. While going all in would push them further ahead of the competition, I do think there is a strong possibility that jumping in could cause them to crash and burn. An incremental transition would allow them to test and learn cost efficient ways to produce while still ensuring quality. The industry is also relatively new, which means that the costs of machinery could also start to decrease over time as new competition enters the market.

    Another concern I have is the level of customization. As 3D printing becomes more prevalent and customers become more adept at designing their own shoes, is there the potential to completely displace brands like Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour? Or for professional or amateur designers to offer and easily produce their own designs, increasing consumer choice? I wonder if 3D printers could start just printing shoes designed by customers themselves, based off base models (sneaker, high heel, boot, etc), and thus making brands irrelevant.

  5. This is a very interesting article. Not only does the additive manufacturing result in a better consumer product, it also has the potential to reduce inventory, distribution, and real estate costs for Adidas. Instead of having to carry a whole line of different sizes, ship them to distributors, and potentially shelve them in their own stores, shoes can be made-to-order and inventory can be just-in-time. This could have a huge impact on Adidas’ cash flow. I think this needs to be considered as they think about how they price their 3D-printed products, which could make it more affordable to a larger population.

  6. Really fascinating read and topic! Thanks so much for sharing your perspective. I was really excited to hear that Adidas is taking an aggressive approach on its 3D printing initiative with the primary goal of improving customer experience. In an industry where shoe fit is likely one of the biggest determinants of conversion, if Adidas can nail this technology, it will have a huge advantage on its competitors. I also think its a very smart move for Adidas because it will allow the company to collect a ton of data on customer’s feet, which will provide it better insight into how to design better fitting shoes at scale. To address your cost question, I don’t think it makes sense for Adidas to jump into 3D printing all-in yet, but I do think they need to be aggressive in order to acquire learnings quickly and eventually use those learning to drive down costs.

  7. Thank you for the very thoughtful essay! As someone who often finds that the standardized running shoe doesn’t fit my feet perfectly, I am really interested in these products. I agree that the high price point will be a barrier for some customers, but I think the value proposition will continue to grow for customized products. I don’t think the price point needs to (or even should) come down significantly, because I believe the target customer wants this product to feel and seem exclusive. To create a profitable market, Adidas needs to educate its customers on the benefits of a shoe completely customized for your feet that also doesn’t rely on cheap human labor. A good place to start would be with celebrity athletes that can champion these products to their fans.

    In response to your other question, I believe Adidas should incrementally adopt this change to their manufacturing process. While there are other players in the space, it is critical that Adidas continues their track record of high-quality products and doesn’t completely switch over to a relatively unproven manufacturing process.

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