Complete with three white stripes down the side, pea-size beads of white plastic pour into what looks like a minivan-size Adidas shoe box in a production hall as clean as a hospital. With only one worker needed to wedge in pieces of plastic called stability bars, in just a few seconds the machine heats and molds the stuff into soles of Adidas running shoes. And with the shoemaker aims to prove it can profitably produce footwear in high-cost, developed economies, this is Adidas AG’s “Speedfactory”. about 160 people to make 1,500 pairs of shoes a day, or 500,000 annually will be made at the facility by next fall.
Key to Adidas’s effort to catch industry leader Nike Inc. is the plant that is halfway between Munich and Frankfurt, and a twin opening this fall near Atlanta. Churning out running shoes in a day, vs. two or three months in China and Vietnam, where components are shuttled among suppliers that produce individual parts.
“In the history of sneaker making, this is probably the biggest revolution since manufacturing moved to Asia,” James Carnes, a 23-year Adidas veteran responsible for company strategy, says as he tours the plant. “Or maybe since sport shoes were made.”
At the two Speedfactories: London and Paris this fall, and New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Shanghai next year, Adidas is betting it can repeat the hype with similar city-themed shoes. Featuring attributes Adidas says are tailored to the needs of a city’s runners for each version, they are planned in batches of several thousand pairs.
The Shanghai variant will be adapted for indoor tracks popular there, the Los Angeles model is designed for hotter weather, and “AM4LDN adidas Made For London” will have reflectors and beefed up waterproofing for jogging in the dark and rain.
Adidas gains the added benefit of keeping the latest trends and ideas in-house rather than sharing them with suppliers and in each instance, the shoes are designed to be made by machines, not by hand.
“Our industry is extremely competitive, so new things have an enormous value,” says Gerd Manz, who oversees technology innovation at Adidas. “Our goal is to use this as a launching ground for innovation.”
Investment in a company making electrical adhesion machines that can assemble the upper part of a shoe 20 times faster than a human worker can has been made by Nike and hence it can be said that Adidas’s rivals are pursuing similar strategies. 3D-printing parts of the soles of some shoes have been started by New Balance Athletics Inc. and Under Armour Inc. And potential to make custom 3D-print shoes for buyers who send in photos of their feet is claimed to be available with Feetz Iinc., based in San Diego.
Fewer jobs at Adidas’s suppliers wowuld noto necessarily be the result of the Speedfactories. The contribution of the automated plants will be negligible compared to the company’s projected 10 percent to 12 percent annual growth rate requiring an additional 40 million pairs of shoes annually through 2020. With the aim that subcontractors can boost automation as wages rise, it’s also considering offering the technology and processes to subcontractors. “The framework in Germany today, the social, environmental, legal requirements, are just what we will also see in our sourcing countries in a few years,” Manz says. “We’ll be prepared.”
(Adapted from Bloomberg)