Sneakers on Demand

3D printing promises to allow sneaker manufacturers to print customized shoes at a moments notice. Now the race is on to see who can develop the technology the quickest.

Adidas competes against Nike, New Balance and Under Armor in the 20 billion dollar a year US sneaker market [1]. This market is ultra competitive, with each brand vying for market share by jostling to receive the biggest celebrity endorsements or hiring the best designer to make the next Iconic shoe. After securing these endorsements or designers each celebrity works with the company’s design team to create a sneaker and then the company produces many thousands of units. This eighteen month long process is changing. The manufacturing process that has been used for the past few decades creates two problems first, if the sneaker does not sell the manufacturer is left with lots of excess inventory and second, the large financial bets required discourage firms from trying radically new ideas and iterating on current ones. An example of the pitfalls of mass manufacturing are evident in Nike’s recent attempt to create a competitor to one of Adidas’ most popular shoe, the Adidas Superstar. When Nike launched their competing shoe they hired supermodel Bella Hadid, Music sensation Kendrick Lamar, launched several version of the shoe. Unfortunately, consumers did not want the shoe and the sneaker has been widely viewed as a flop. Despite being the largest launch of the year for Nike the CEO did not even mention the sneaker at the company’s next annual meeting. This issue of having to produce million of items before being able to test out the market is being solved by 3D printing

Adidas knows they are not immune to the mistakes that Nike made when trying to compete with the Superstar shoe, in fact, they are embracing new technologies to try and shorten time to market and reduce costs for more experimental shoes. Adidas recently launched the “futurecraft 4D” sneaker, which includes a regular knit upper shoe and a 3D printed sole. The 3D printed sole is made to order for the customers specific foot shape. This provides the customer with a better custom experience.  Normal manufacturing could not support making a single run for each customer in an appropriate amount of time or cost yet 3D printing is allowing Adidas to do just that. While this pair of shoes only has the sole 3D printed, Adidas understands the potential benefits of having mass 3D printing and has recently made a two hundred million dollar investment into 3D printing in the hopes to expand their capabilities.

Adidas first production run of the Futurecraft was slated for 5,000 pairs of shoes but given the success and their ability to keep manufacturing costs in-line this shoe has now been produced more than one hundred thousand times [2]. While Adidas has not publicly stated their longer term goals for 3D printing one could imagine the potential solutions it offers given the limitations of current manufacturing techniques. Their partner Carbon claims that one day 3D printing will allow Adidas to dynamically adjust manufacturing to meet a specific demand for a shoe.[3] Not having to worry about inventory builds will allow the manufacturer to iterate their models more often and even allow designers to try out radical ideas. Since these goals will require large changes in 3D printing the current stated goal for Adidas is to ramp up production of this sneaker and to build out a few other sneakers in the 3D printed platform. [4]

I would recommend to Adidas management to pursue 3D printing in a more aggressive and manner. 3D printing will allow shoe designers to create a better product at a lower overall cost, if Adidas falls behind its competitors in this field it will lose market share. Adidas is not the only one focusing on adding 3d printing to their supply chain, the CEO of Nike at the same annual meeting where he failed to mention the Adidas Superstar competitor, said the future of Nike is in 3D modeling, An accelerated system for designing new sneakers.” [2]


I would also recommend considering new business models. If 3D printing becomes the norm in the industry then creating Adidas’ manufacturing supply chain won’t be difficult, it will be the cost of a 3D printer. In this event Adidas may want to rely on its years of data for what has sold and to who and leverage that data to become a partner for designers and athletes, where instead of paying them for their endorsement instead you provide them services like data support for design, market analysis and marketing management for a fee or a cut of the revenues.



  1. Will manufacturing companies because intellectual property companies as 3D printing becomes more mainstream and products can be produced instantly from anywhere?
  2. Will design become more democratic? Will you buy clothing design separately from where you have it made?

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  1. NPD Study, “US Athletic Footwear Industry Sales” Accessed 2018
  2. Richard Lawler, “Adidas will keep futurecraft rolling” Accessed 2018
  3. Tara Donaldson, “Why Adidas is partnering with Carbon” Accessed 2018
  4. Kasper Rosted, “Third quarter 2018 Adidas earnings call”


Kevin Stein at TransDigm Group


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Student comments on Sneakers on Demand

  1. To address the first question in the reflections section, I do not think that manufacturing companies will become intellectual property companies. While the 3D Printing space to some extent democratizes manufacturing, I believe most customers will still go to producers who can achieve vast economies of scale. The reasons are several fold:
    1. Lower Costs – Nike and Adidas will still be able to acquire premium input materials at a much lower cost than individual consumers – hence overall production costs will be lower
    2. Brands – Brands will still be important to customers and while the product may not be as differentiated, the brand meaning will be (a la dove etc.)
    3. R&D / Technological Innovation – Retail companies and manufacturers will still be able to invest large sums of money into making the next best product, which consumers will not be able to do

    1. Just to Noah’s points:

      1. On the other hand, customers have no profit margin to put over the cost they are paying for whatever input materials they are buying. Maybe the advantage companies have on that is offset by what they charge over what customers would pay by doing it themselves.
      2. Brands could still exist as design brands. They don’t need to actually manufacture the product to be a thing. Brands would also become much less defensible against piracy in a world of ubiquitous 3d printing.
      3. Is there really all that much innovation still to be made in sneakers? Do people really care that much about it? Maybe they care less about it than about being able to have customized sneakers anywhere and anytime they want.

  2. Very interesting article!
    On your second question, I definitely see a future where people would buy purely the design of their shoes or clothing to later print them anywhere. In that scenario, big players such as Adidas or Nike would only be relevant if they focus on the design of their products and the strength of their brand. Moreover, I think the margins for those players will diminish over time. Therefore, I think the decision of moving into the development of 3D printing technology looks like an obliged bet by Nike and Adidas if they aspire to maintain their relevance.

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