“One day, consumers will be able to buy a shoe design file from Nike and 3D print the shoe themselves”– Erick Sprunk, Nike COO1
As clearly recognized by Nike, the American sportswear giant, 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) is the future, both to optimize its production process and to continue to produce the most innovative sports apparel available. The company views additive manufacturing as a key strategic lever to achieve its goal of “scaling technology to deliver greater performance innovation faster” and “explore new ways to manufacture performance products to help athletes reach their full potential”2.
Thus far, the main application of additive manufacturing has been in footwear. In this space, additive manufacturing can improve Nike’s production processes, for example through further eliminating costly labor and faster prototyping increasing its speed to market4. Shoes’ performance can be enhanced through – among others – lighter, more breathable components, fewer frictional resistance between yarns and the enablement of data-driven customization2.
But Nike is not alone. Traditional competitors in the footwear space like Adidas and New Balance are doubling down on their additive manufacturing capabilities5, and new competition is arriving from crowdfunded 3D printed shoe manufacturers like Wiivv and OLT Footcare6. In response, Nike has partnered with multinational information technology company HP to accelerate its additive manufacturing innovation processes2. With current regular updates on its latest solutions, the future may be just around the corner – if not already here.
Nike has been filing patents for several additive manufacturing techniques improving its production processes. Most notably, in 2012 the company has filed a patent for “automated strobel printing”, a process that was previously highly labor-intensive4. By 2018, Nike stated its 3D printed prototyping process is 16 times quicker than “any previous manufacturing method7”.
In 2016 the company announced its first more revolutionary product innovation,introducing customized 3D printed shoes for top atheletes2. In 2016, Nike produced a 3D printed track shoe for sprinter Allyson Felix2. At the Olympics of that year, Felix won two golden medals – one less than at her previous Olympics8. A year later, runner Eliud Kipchoge attempted to break his own world record for the fastest marathon ever wearing Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elites running shoes – the first shoe with a 3D printed “upper”9. Although Kichoge came in first place, he did not break his record10.
The outcomes of these initial “real-world” testing of the 3D printed shoes do not seem to demotivate Nike. Rather, the company has strong processes in place to continue improving the performance of the shoes. For example, after Kichoge’s race, Nike gathered detailed feedback, and has since altered the composition of the 3D printed upper material to absorb less water9.
In the short term, Nike has stated to continue focusing on footwear for distance runners7. Nike is likely focusing on finding a way to attach the shoe’s upper to the midsole strobel, another labor-intensive process they admitted to currently be beyond the scope of their patent4. The company will also roll out its 3D printed shoes to more athletes to optimize the shoes’ performance.
In the medium-term, Nike will be looking for ways to bringing customized 3D printed shoes to customers beyond elite athletes. With its product capabilities in place, the focus will be on scaling the production while reducing costs to a level that consumers will find acceptable. Additionally, Nike has announced the next application for its additive manufacturing will be shoes for the NFL11.
Nike is clearly on its way to capitalize on the opportunity additive manufacturing brings to the sportswear industry and is turning its capabilities into competitive advantage. However, in my opinion the Nike management is too focused in its applications of the 3D printing technique; posing possible threats in areas currently left behind. To ensure they remain the world’s leading sportswear manufacturer, Nike’s management should free up resources to broaden up the applications of additive manufacturing.
Most importantly, they should accelerate the roll out of 3D printed footwear to soccer. Soccer is currently Nike’s 5th largest income stream3. Additionally, Nike’s performance in soccer has a large impact on its overall brand recognition and equity – especially outside the US. Failing to launch 3D printed high performance footwear in this industry could cause serious setbacks in Nike’s continuous head-to-head battle in the soccer space with competitor Adidas.
The question remains however how broad exactly the management should go. Should Nike perfect its footwear capabilities across sports before moving to 3D printed equipment such as tennis rackets, soccer balls and golf clubs? Failing to move into these applications timely risks the company losing ground as the all-round player in the sports industry. On the other hand, spreading its resources to thinly might slow down innovation in the footwear industry where Nike undergoes heavy competition from dedicated players who do not have to make such trade-offs.
- Soper, 2015.Nike COO: You’ll soon be able to make shoes at your home with a 3D printer. https://www.geekwire.com/2015/nike-coo-youll-soon-be-able-to-make-shoes-at-your-home-with-a-3d-printer/accessed November 12th, 2018.
- Nike, 2016. At Nike the Future is Faster, and it’s 3D. https://news.nike.com/news/nike-hp-3d-printingaccessed November 12th, 2018.
- McFarlane, 2018. How Nike Makes Money. https://www.investopedia.com/articles/markets/080415/how-nike-nke-makes-its-money.aspaccessed November 12th, 2018.
- Nelson, 2015. Nike was just granted a key patent for 3D printed shoe technology. https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/nike-patents-3d-printed-shoe-technology/accessed November 12th, 2018.
- Peels, 2017. If the Shoe Fits: 3D Printing and the Future of Manufacturing Footwear. https://3dprint.com/174833/3d-printing-future-of-footwear/accessed November 12th, 2018.
- Scott, 2017. Prodways Introduces New 3D Printed Footwear Materials and Solutions, Collaborates with Nike. https://3dprint.com/177120/prodways-3d-printed-footwear/accessed November 12th, 2018.
- Nike, 2018. What is Nike Flyprint? https://news.nike.com/news/nike-flyprint-3d-printed-textileaccessed November 12th, 2018.
- Olympic, 2016. Alysson Felix overview.https://www.olympic.org/allyson-felixaccessed November 12th, 2018.
- Morby, 2018. Nike unveils ‘world’s first’ running shoes with 3D-printed uppers. https://www.dezeen.com/2018/04/21/nike-unveils-3d-printed-running-shoes-london-marathon/accessed November 12th, 2018.
- Scott, 2018. Nike introduces Flyprint Running shoes with First 3D printed upper. https://3dprint.com/tag/nike/accessed November 12th, 2018.
- Del Nibletto, 2017. Nike teams up with HP to 3D print shoes for the NFL. https://www.itbusiness.ca/news/nike-teams-up-with-hp-to-3d-print-shoes-for-the-nfl/96745accessed November 12th, 2018.