The fashion industry’s manufacturing processes are flawed; wastefulness of resources, unnecessary labor, and the inability to quickly react to consumer preferences at an individual level have all contributed to production inefficiencies at a global scale. Adidas and Carbon, an innovative 3D printing and manufacturing technology company, have formed a partnership in order to revolutionize these traditional archaic production practices and transform the industry from one of mass production to mass customization . Carbon’s vision to utilize new forms of additive manufacturing, such as DLS (Digital Light Synthesis), and a proprietary method know as CLIP (Continuous Liquid Interface Production), will replace the costly practice of injection molding, a technique utilized by virtually every apparel manufacture company to arrive at a finished prototype, which is then employed for mass production . Through DLS and CLIP, Carbon is able to ensure production consistencies with predictable mechanical properties, creating an opportunity for the customization of complex prototypes to be made available for sale, while also limiting the quantity of resin materials, or polymers, necessary to create finished goods . The resulting product requires less waste, lower labor costs, and the ability to rapidly iterate the design process until the final design specifications are met.
Integrating additive manufacturing into the brand’s daily production practices allows Adidas to rethink their go to market strategies, potentially giving the brand a serious competitive advantage in the global apparel industry. In combination with the DLS and CLIP technologies, Adidas has built the ability to sync the R&D processes with a cloud based software system that allows them to test various athlete’s performance metrics, from foot striking force to stride length, in order quickly customize the end product, in this case the mid-sole, to adhere to the performance standards of a specific athlete . These benefits will allow Adidas to customize a product for an individual consumer, but it also allows the brand to create batches of the same style for sports teams, while catering each shoe to the athlete’s unique specifications. This is the perfect marriage between design aesthetics and data driven production.
This ability to iterate on the design specs can greatly cut down the inventory delivery cycle times from industry norms of six months to fifteen months, to just three to seven days. These advantages combined with the switch to leaner production lines, a single engineer is needed to operate a single machine, will provide additional outlets for cost savings along the production process. While the technology itself speeds up the production process, Adidas has also rethought the way in which they intend to use their production facilities, changing them from micro-distribution centers to micro-factories . With new facilities in Germany and Atlanta, knows as “The Speedfactory”, Adidas will be able to move some of the production from Asia to facilities that are closer to their actual retailers, allowing them to quickly meet the production needs of specific stores based on individual store sales . This will give Adidas the ability to be closer to the consumer, improve the monitoring of inventory levels within a specific warehouse, and increase the overall production capacity.
While this partnership has created a tremendous edge for Adidas over the current footwear apparel landscape, it remains to be said if Carbon’s patented technology is enough to propel Adidas above other sportswear behemoths such as Nike and Under Armor. One of the obstacles currently facing Adidas is whether they can rapidly scale the scope of the technology in a cost-effective way to continue to gage their consumers product preferences while maintaining a swift feedback loop.
Adidas launched 5,000 pairs of their first 3D printed shoe, the Futurecraft 4D, this past January and it sold out in a matter of days. Was this this surge in demand for the product driven by the limited quantity released, or due to increasing consumer interest in experiencing the technology of a 3D printed sneaker? Additionally, Adidas plans to be able to produce 1 million pairs of the 3D sneakers during 2019, and given Adidas’ total footwear production of 400 million pairs during 2018, this would represent a meager .25% . Would this ramp up of production cause the consumer to negatively perceive the 3D sneaker as another form of mass production vs. that of mass customization? Will the 3D sneaker even appeal to the preferences of the mass consumer, or will consumers deem it as a fad? Lastly, will Adidas position the sneaker as a B2B product, selling to professional sports teams, or will they be able to incorporate 3D printers into their retail chains (B2C) and actually produce efficiently enough to enhance the overall consumer experience?
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