By 2020, 3D printed tools or additive manufacturing will be used for 75% of manufacturing operations world-wide, with new product introduction timelines decreasing by 25% . In addition, top priorities for additive manufacturing include accelerating product development, in which industry trends show that 57% of all 3D printing is conducted during the first phases of development, offering customized products, increasing production flexibility, and improving spare parts management . Companies are recognizing that additive manufacturing processes are crucial for process improvements as a complement to traditional manufacturing processes, and can create new products originally thought too complex or costly .
Within the global apparel industry, Under Armour (UA) has become the largest digital health and fitness company, developing, marketing and distributing branded performance apparel, footwear, and accessories . Favorable global apparel industry trends show an anticipated growth of 5.1% . However, despite this industry growth and increasing revenues of 3.1% in 2017 for UA, it continues to lag behind its biggest competitors . As a response, UA continues to focus on customization and incorporation of additive manufacturing to differentiate its products in this extremely competitive apparel industry.
DESIGNING THE 3D PRINTED SHOE: ARCHITECH IS BORN
In 2016, UA created its Architech line, utilizing 3D printed midsoles. The midsoles were produced using selective laser sintering (SLS) performed at the UA lab. Such printing yielded extreme precision and minimal waste creation, and with Autodesk Within, this software allowed design possibilities for the creation of this lightweight, stable and cushioned midsole. For instance, by adding durability, flexibility or weight requirements, the software could generate the specific design requirements and any extra materials could easily be removed . UA successfully launched this shoe and was the first to bring it to market amongst its competitors . Usually, an athlete might purchase a variety of shoes for different activities such as weightlifting and running. Now, these midsoles provide different amounts of energy to the athlete’s feet, providing versatility and maximum performance. In addition, the vine-like shape would be extremely costly to produce utilizing traditional molding techniques. A drawback is that 3D printing takes about 24 hours to produce a pair of customized soles; whereas, automated technology can make 2400 pairs of soles in 8 hours .
Figure 1: Architech, Businessinsider.com
In 2017, EOS, a leading supplier in 3D printing, announced a strategic partnership with UA to advance 3D printed foot-ware with goals to scale 3D printing . That year, the ArchiTech Futurist line was born. In 2016, UA Lighthouse was opened, the manufacturing and design innovation center, and UA’s headquarters were expanded to provide space for continued growth and innovation . In the short term, management continues to partner and innovate in order to more efficiently produce 3D printed mid-soles in greater product offerings  as well as provide enough supply to meet the growing demand, as only 96 Architechs were originally introduced to market . In the medium term, UA is looking to scale its product line to sell at a price point that is affordable. Currently, the line costs $299, and UA is working to reduce the time and optimize the technology in order to incorporate into mass production . The medium approach looks to more quickly produce products by making process improvements such as decreasing the amount of labor time required by improving the skills gap, and reacting more quickly to changing consumer preferences . UA has even been experimenting with robots to automate the manufacturing processes .
Figure 2: Architech Futurist, underarmour.com
Figure 3: UA Lighthouse Innovation Center, underarmour.com
Competition will continue to persist in the short and medium terms . While UA was the first apparel company to bring 3D printed shoes to market, its competitors are utilizing additive manufacturing as well. In the short-term, UA should focus on increasing the output rate for the completion of these shoes. Opportunities to do so include increasing automation, developing quality assurance software to limit the amount of re-work and understanding how to quickly find errors in the CAD models . 3D printing works best in areas where customization is key, so UA should take advantage of its investments in e-commerce. In recent years, the company acquired MapMyFitness, EndoMondo and MyFitnessPal to lead the digital fitness industry, and should continue with this momentum . In the next ten years, UA should additionally create an app that could scan the foot to determine exact specifications because the shoe is currently not individually customized. UA should utilize its current digital platforms to create a function where consumers could input key measurements, and the design process could quickly produce the customized product. Questions remain though on the sustainability of this program. How can UA differentiate itself over the competition in 3D printing customization, and how can UA mass produce customized shoes for consumers of all kinds within a timely manner and at a reasonable price point?
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