Over the last decade, rapidly developments in additive manufacturing technologies has propelled 3D printing from a consumer product used by hobbyists to an industrial tool used by enterprises for process improvements and accelerated product development . Adidas was an early believer in 3D printing’s transformative potential and is leveraging the technology to bring mass customization to its customers.
Adidas recently partnered with 3D printing startup Carbon to bring to market a new line of individualized, high performance athletic footwear branded Futurecraft 4D . This new line of shoes will have 3D printed variable density insoles that perfectly fit the wearer based his or her height, weight, foot measurements, and gait. Traditional footwear manufacturing based on injection or compression molding does not allow for this kind of customization because of the multiple parts required to create an insole with variable properties . Assembling these multiple parts would be too labor-intensive and it would introduce multiple potential points of failure. Instead, Carbon allows Adidas to 3D print the insole in one piece, layer by layer, taking into account all the variability required by the customer. James Carnes, Vice President of Strategy Creation for Adidas believes that mass customization, enabled by 3D printing, is the future of retail. The new store experience will enable customers to get “some sort of physical assessment, whether it’s your fit or movement specifications, that translates to your actual needs” .
In addition to leveraging 3D printing for mass customization, Adidas is also leveraging the technology to accelerate product development. Traditional footwear manufacturing can take 15 to 18 months from design to shipment, in part because of the costly molding required for prototyping which can consume a big chunk of the cycle time.  This traditional process is so slow that many footwear development programs can only afford 3-5 redesign cycles before finalizing the design . By leveraging 3D printing’s lower set up time and software enabled product design and simulation, Carbon allows Adidas to have 10x as many design iterations and 33% faster design to shipment time . Mr. Carnes believes that the shortened product cycle allows Adidas to take advantage of on-demand supply chain and manufacture its footwear close to where the demand is to lower inventory costs. “Right now, most of our products are made out of Asia and we put them on a boat or on a plane.” In the future, “instead of having some sort of micro-distribution center in Jersey, we can have a micro factory” .
Adidas’s short-term goal is to produce 100,000 pairs of Futurecraft 4D shoes by the end of 2018 and its medium-term plan is to ramp up production to millions of pairs in the coming years . “We have a really aggressive plan to scale this, Carnes said in an interview. “We are scaling a production. The plan will put us as the world’s biggest producer of 3D-printed products” . Historically, 3D printing has been used mostly to prototype products in development before they are then mass produced with traditional manufacturing techniques. Scaling to millions of manufactured products has been a challenge because traditional 3D printing technologies are often too slow and require too many wasteful pre- and post-printing costs to be used for high volume manufacturing . Adidas chose to partner with Carbon because its unique “Digital Light Synthesis” technology prints fast enough for manufacturing at scale. Unlike traditional stereolithography (SLA) based 3D printing that requires lasers to trace out sliced profiles line by line, Carbon uses light to set the shape and cure an entire layer all at once. “Digital Light Synthesis” is 8x times faster than SLA which allows Adidas to not only reap the design benefits of 3D printing but also allows the company to produce millions of pairs of shoes in an economical way .
As Adidas scales up its manufacturing capabilities, I recommend the company’s management outsource part of the 3D printing production to 3rd party service bureaus. Just as software-as-a-service has spawned many other “aaS” markets, there is a growing ecosystem of manufacturing-as-a-service providers (MaaS) that allow customers to lease 3D printers vs. owning their own equipment . These service bureaus allow manufacturers to, via APIs, access 3D printers on demand and add new material choices as well as inventories of powders and resins. By forming strategic partnerships with these service bureaus, Adidas can mitigate the risk of purchasing expensive printers that quickly become obsolete. Carbon’s M1 printer costs $64,500 upfront and $144,500 over 3 years excluding costs of materials required for printing .
Wohler Associates Inc, a leading additive manufacturing consulting firm, estimates that in the long term, 3D printing may represent only 5% of total manufacturing worldwide . What will limit 3D printing’s potential?
(Word Count: 799)
 D’Aveni, R. (2015, November 16). The 3-D Printing Revolution. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/05/the-3-d-printing-revolution
 The perfect fit: Carbon adidas collaborate to upend athletic footwear. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.carbon3d.com/stories/adidas/
 Cheng, A. (2018, May 23). How Adidas Plans To Bring 3D Printing To The Masses. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/andriacheng/2018/05/22/with-adidas-3d-printing-may-finally-see-its-mass-retail-potential/#13d1308a4a60
 Dillet, R. (2018, September 07). How Adidas and Carbon are changing the sneaker supply chain. Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2018/09/07/how-adidas-and-carbon-are-changing-the-sneaker-supply-chain/
 If the Shoe Fits: 3D Printing and the Future of Manufacturing Footwear. (2017, May 25). Retrieved from https://3dprint.com/174833/3d-printing-future-of-footwear/
 Holweg, M. (2015, June 23). The Limits of 3D Printing. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/06/the-limits-of-3d-printing
 DLP vs SLA – 3D Printing Technologies Shootout. (2018, September 28). Retrieved from https://all3dp.com/2/dlp-vs-sla-3d-printing-technologies-shootout/
 PwC. (2018, September 12). Five ways 3-D printing is changing manufacturing. Retrieved from https://usblogs.pwc.com/emerging-technology/5-ways-3d-printing-revolutionizes-manufacturing/
 Carbon M1 Review 2019 – Is This 3D Printer Worth The Money? (2018, October 27). Retrieved from https://www.3dbeginners.com/carbon-m1-review/
 T.T. Wohlers and T. Caffrey, “Wholer Report 2015: 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing State of the Industry Annual Worldwide Progress Report” (Fort Collins, Colorado Wohlers Associates, 2015)