In the ever-changing athletic footwear landscape, harnessing the power of cutting-edge technology has become critical to brand success and survival. The American sports footwear and apparel company, Under Armour (UA), founded in 1996 by Chairman and CEO, Kevin Plank, has competed on a global stage with some of the largest athletic footwear companies, such as Nike, Adidas, Puma, and New Balance . With sales growth slowing, up only 3% YoY from 2016, compared to 22% YoY from 2015, Under Armour has turned to additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing to create innovative products, pushing the boundaries of technology within athletic footwear . As athletes try to gain any edge over their competition, AM could create the incremental benefits these consumers are looking for.
In November of 2017, UA partnered with Electro Optical Systems (EOS), a major player in the space of AM, to advance the use of 3D printing in commercial operations . With this strategic alliance, Under Armour is faced with several questions that other firms must also confront when dealing with the industrialization of AM.
- Should this technology be deployed to enable enhanced product customization for consumers (i.e., mass customization) or to lower standardization costs by making supply chains more efficient?
- Will AM become an operating efficiency used in mass production or is it best used during the prototyping phase within research and development?
- Is 3D printing a technology that can organically merge within a company’s business model or does this technology prompt firms to reconsider how to bring products to market?
These are a few of the questions Under Armour and its competitors are having to ask as AM becomes more practical and cost-effective.
Product development will play another factor when considering the utility of 3D printing for footwear. AM will allow product development teams to become more iterative through its testing phase, but it also allows manufacturing companies to become more service oriented in nature. For example, through the use of lasers and heat to manipulate the mechanical properties of polymers, it only takes a few minutes to produce a midsole for an athletic sneaker using AM . As UA sponsors top athletes such as Stephen Curry, Tom Brady, Jordan Spieth, and Bryce Harper, 3D printing can limit the processing time between prototyping iterations of a sponsored athlete’s shoe, reducing the time it takes to go to market. As these sponsored athletes provide feedback on various prototypes tested during the trial phase, product managers can become more effective and efficient with each adjustment made .
In addition, 3D printing can dramatically change the buying experience for customers. Imagine walking into an Under Armour store and having a machine virtually scan a 3D replica of your foot, not only identifying your foot size, but also your pressure points, stride, and stability. After being measured, the customer would have the ability to customize her shoe and have it in her hands within a couple of days given the ability to tailor shoes to each individual with AM.
This notion of a highly customized shoe industry may not be economically feasible however. Many of the advantages of this technology will most likely result in better supply chain and inventory management. Rather than relying on a wide array of suppliers to fulfill raw material requirements, AM allows companies such as UA to bring processes in-house. Specifically, 3D printing adds the most value when creating “complex parts … that could not be made any other way. ” Rather than relying on vendors to support low volume, high complexity materials that lack demand visibility, UA has the opportunity to enhance its supply chain capabilities by judiciously investing to eliminate operational headwinds, while removing overhead and labor costs by spending on machine automation .
As Under Armour aggressively attempts to grab global share from its largest competitors, how will it use AM to do so? In the short-term, to become a stakeholder in a transformational AM supply chain, UA must continue to make the proper investments and acquisitions to capture the opportunity of using the technology’s commercial applications. In the long-run, companies that can utilize 3D printing to expand margins by procuring lower cost raw materials will yield the greatest competitive advantages. Though Nike and Adidas seem to be the most obvious threats, is it possible for a startup at the intersection of AM and footwear to reshape the branded sneaker landscape? If so, are these sports apparel brands inevitably destined to be disrupted if they cannot commercialize the use of this groundbreaking technology?
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1Baer, Drake, “Here’s how Under Armour grew into a $15 billion athletic-apparel empire”, Business Insider, February 19, 2015, https://www.businessinsider.com/history-of-under-armour-2015-2, accessed November 9, 2018.
2Under Armour, 2017 Annual Report, p. 3, http://investor.underarmour.com/static-files/242095c1-f708-4494-afe5-8b7d25415c4f, accessed November 10, 2018.
3”EOS and Under Armour partner…,” press release, November 29, 2017, on EOS website, https://www.eos.info/press/eos-and-under-armour-partner-to-develop-advanced-scalable-laser-sintering-3d-printing-technology, accessed November 8, 2018
4Brown. Chain reaction: Why AM is about to transform the supply chain. Mechanical Engineering 140, no. 10 (October 2018): 30–35.
5Elie Ofek and Ryan Johnson, “Nike Football: World Cup 2010 South Africa,” HBS No. 9-511-060 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2013), p. 3-10.
6Brown. Chain reaction: Why AM is about to transform the supply chain. Mechanical Engineering 140, no. 10 (October 2018): 32.
7Kerns. What’s next for 3D printing? The disruptive technology continues to grow thanks to lower costs and greater accessibility. Machine Design 90, no. 1 (January 2018): 36–42.
Source: Sports apparel market share in the United States as of 2017, via Statista, accessed November 12, 2018.