Can technology help manufacture sports shoes locally?

3D printing and other technologies can radically transform the sportswear manufacturer's supply chain.
17 October 2018

Should Adidas 3D print its shoes? Source: Shutterstock

The sports shoe market is quite exciting, with companies such as Adidas, Nike, Reebok and others trying to come up with innovative products while also reimagining the way they run their companies.

Given the strong, sustained, global demand for sneakers and all other kinds of sports shoes, it’s important for manufacturers to think about their supply chains.

Traditionally, they’ve conceptualized their shoes in advanced countries and manufactured in developing countries where labor is cheap and easy to source.

However, there’s been quite a bit of backlash regarding the (lack of) rights and safety of workers employed in these production units. Further, consumers have woken up to the importance of reducing the carbon footprint (which is quite great when shoes are manufactured halfway across the world) and using recycled and sustainable raw materials.

As a result, companies in this market have been rethinking how they can reimagine (and reinvent) their supply chain. It’s something that some of the biggest sportswear manufacturers like Nike and Adidas are already experimenting with.

Let’s talk about Adidas. The company has partnered with Carbon, an interesting company in California, to 3D print sneakers for a new line-up they call Futurecraft 4D.

“Together, we are developing the first mass production process that makes previously impossible midsole geometries with revolutionary 3D printable materials, paving the way for custom, high-performance shoes that meet the unique needs of each customer,” explained Carbon.

And although Futurecraft 4D shoes or any other 3D printed shoes by Adidas aren’t easy to buy at the moment, the company is trying hard to bring these capabilities to market soon.

According to Adidas CMO Eric Liedtke who spoke to local media recently believes 3D printing can help build a new kind of supply chain where micro-distribution centers in different parts of America can be replaced by micro-factories that customize products for each order using sustainable fibers and 20 years of product data.

Nike too has a line of 3D printers it calls Flyprint and expects it to help transform how the company thinks about the production of sports shoes. The company currently works with 529 factories in 41 countries, which means, 3D printing could radically change how the business operates.

In the future, it seems as though most shoe manufacturers, especially those in the business of producing sports shoes, will 3D print their products — close to where it’s sold. Production will move close to markets so customizations can be offered while also ensuring orders are delivered quickly — disrupting tradition supply chains in this industry.