Under Armour: Can it Continue to Customize and Expand its Line of 3D-Printed Midsole Performance Footwear?
Under Armour has created 3D-printed midsoles for peak athlete performance, and continues to innovate to differentiate itself within the extremely competitive apparel industry.
By 2020, 3D printed tools or additive manufacturing will be used for 75% of manufacturing operations world-wide, with new product introduction timelines decreasing by 25% . In addition, top priorities for additive manufacturing include accelerating product development, in which industry trends show that 57% of all 3D printing is conducted during the first phases of development, offering customized products, increasing production flexibility, and improving spare parts management . Companies are recognizing that additive manufacturing processes are crucial for process improvements as a complement to traditional manufacturing processes, and can create new products originally thought too complex or costly .
Within the global apparel industry, Under Armour (UA) has become the largest digital health and fitness company, developing, marketing and distributing branded performance apparel, footwear, and accessories . Favorable global apparel industry trends show an anticipated growth of 5.1% . However, despite this industry growth and increasing revenues of 3.1% in 2017 for UA, it continues to lag behind its biggest competitors . As a response, UA continues to focus on customization and incorporation of additive manufacturing to differentiate its products in this extremely competitive apparel industry.
DESIGNING THE 3D PRINTED SHOE: ARCHITECH IS BORN
In 2016, UA created its Architech line, utilizing 3D printed midsoles. The midsoles were produced using selective laser sintering (SLS) performed at the UA lab. Such printing yielded extreme precision and minimal waste creation, and with Autodesk Within, this software allowed design possibilities for the creation of this lightweight, stable and cushioned midsole. For instance, by adding durability, flexibility or weight requirements, the software could generate the specific design requirements and any extra materials could easily be removed . UA successfully launched this shoe and was the first to bring it to market amongst its competitors . Usually, an athlete might purchase a variety of shoes for different activities such as weightlifting and running. Now, these midsoles provide different amounts of energy to the athlete’s feet, providing versatility and maximum performance. In addition, the vine-like shape would be extremely costly to produce utilizing traditional molding techniques. A drawback is that 3D printing takes about 24 hours to produce a pair of customized soles; whereas, automated technology can make 2400 pairs of soles in 8 hours .
Figure 1: Architech, Businessinsider.com
In 2017, EOS, a leading supplier in 3D printing, announced a strategic partnership with UA to advance 3D printed foot-ware with goals to scale 3D printing . That year, the ArchiTech Futurist line was born. In 2016, UA Lighthouse was opened, the manufacturing and design innovation center, and UA’s headquarters were expanded to provide space for continued growth and innovation . In the short term, management continues to partner and innovate in order to more efficiently produce 3D printed mid-soles in greater product offerings  as well as provide enough supply to meet the growing demand, as only 96 Architechs were originally introduced to market . In the medium term, UA is looking to scale its product line to sell at a price point that is affordable. Currently, the line costs $299, and UA is working to reduce the time and optimize the technology in order to incorporate into mass production . The medium approach looks to more quickly produce products by making process improvements such as decreasing the amount of labor time required by improving the skills gap, and reacting more quickly to changing consumer preferences . UA has even been experimenting with robots to automate the manufacturing processes .
Figure 2: Architech Futurist, underarmour.com
Figure 3: UA Lighthouse Innovation Center, underarmour.com
Competition will continue to persist in the short and medium terms . While UA was the first apparel company to bring 3D printed shoes to market, its competitors are utilizing additive manufacturing as well. In the short-term, UA should focus on increasing the output rate for the completion of these shoes. Opportunities to do so include increasing automation, developing quality assurance software to limit the amount of re-work and understanding how to quickly find errors in the CAD models . 3D printing works best in areas where customization is key, so UA should take advantage of its investments in e-commerce. In recent years, the company acquired MapMyFitness, EndoMondo and MyFitnessPal to lead the digital fitness industry, and should continue with this momentum . In the next ten years, UA should additionally create an app that could scan the foot to determine exact specifications because the shoe is currently not individually customized. UA should utilize its current digital platforms to create a function where consumers could input key measurements, and the design process could quickly produce the customized product. Questions remain though on the sustainability of this program. How can UA differentiate itself over the competition in 3D printing customization, and how can UA mass produce customized shoes for consumers of all kinds within a timely manner and at a reasonable price point?
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Student comments on Under Armour: Can it Continue to Customize and Expand its Line of 3D-Printed Midsole Performance Footwear?
I really enjoyed this article! Great insight into a competitive industry where any edge in process design could drive down prices and create a large competitive advantage. One consequence of this project which concerns me is the potential product cannibalization of UA’s existing footwear lines. While a universally applicable shoe for all sports will certain be appealing to customers, how would it change demand for their current product offering? Especially since athletes will not be purchasing shoes for every type of activity anymore. I suspect that competition will likely drive them to transition into this space regardless, so it may be a strategic necessity. However, I do wonder how they are planning for this transition. Thanks!
Great work, Allison — really enjoyed reading your post on UA. It seems like right now, any material-saving benefits of additive manufacturing are unfortunately more than offset by reduced production speed. However, as you mentioned, the ability to personalize products with additive manufacturing is a currently untapped opportunity for UA. Along the lines of automation, it’ll be interesting to see whether UA has fitting appointments for these personalized shoes, or whether they are able to use a more automated option (perhaps a photo/scan/mold of the foot).
Really interesting to see an apparel producer enter the 3D printing field and provide customisable footwear. It begs the question, do you think UA should also use additive manufacturing for apparel, something they have equal if not more expertise in? One question I am grappling with myself is how much do consumers truly value this technology and how can brands like UA, Nike or Adidas prove win over customers who are currently quite happy with their current way of purchasing? Really thought-provoking piece about the future of shoes, thank you!
Allison — really great article. I think your point about raising competition is especially important to note. How can Under Armor ensure that they are keeping ahead of the competitors in a way that differentiates them, as competitors begin to use the same technology? Your comments on how UA is acquiring many other digital fitness apps may be the answer. Perhaps as competition grows, it is unrealistic to think that they can keep differentiated from their competitors solely by their footwear (pun intended) and other apparel. In that case, focusing on your idea of using other forms of technology to track fitness performance and better customize footwear and apparel could be a great path. Thank you for writing on this topic – I’m excited to see how UA and the industry continue to innovate!
This is super interesting and something I didn’t know about. One question I have is why all top athletes don’t use this if it is proven to lead to better results. Do you have any insight on this?
Additionally, I love your idea about building an app to measure the foot and automatically output data to a 3D printer with the specifications. You should build it!
Overall, I learned a lot from this read. Thanks for sharing!
There is an alarming difference between the production capacity of the automated technology and the 3D printing technology that on my point of view places a huge barrier for spreading this technology. Given that, the cost of production must be extremely high and I tend to believe those products can only be offered at a premium price/for niche customers. However, that 24h cycle time can be seen as a low cycle time from the point of view of the customer if he is the one producing it. In this last option though you have to consider the 3D printer costs, again leading to a premium segment. An alternative would be to have “3D printing shops” on where you can go and print your products or even Amazon selling a service of printing and delivering it for you!
Really interesting, Allison! My perception of 3D printing to date has been that it is primarily used for prototyping. Its great to see how far Under Armour has progressed from that stage through strategic partnerships and a focus on innovation. As you mention, I agree there is a huge opportunity to increase customization for customers based on their unique measurements. Similarly, I see opportunities for an almost infinite number of potential order formulations and combinations, given that the variable cost of customization is almost zero with this kind of technology. I will be curious to see as well if Under Armour takes more of this capability in house or continues to partner with companies like EOS. This is something a lot of these companies are grappling with at the moment and I imagine the next few years will be instructive for the industry.
Allison – fascinating to see UA making the huge investments in R&D to take its products to the next level via additive manufacturing. As you touched on in the article and Stefan added to in his comment, the production time per unit seems prohibitive for the shoe being able to reach the mass market and improvements to production time will likely need to improve by a massive factor (not just incrementally). Given its recent financial issues, it will be interesting to see whether UA will view future products and associated investments related to additive manufacturing as critical to its product pipeline or something that might need to be curtailed.
Thank you for the wonderful insights, Allison. I agree that the main concern here is how to compete with other brands – maybe I’m behind the times on sneaker purchasing, but I wasn’t aware of this app/specialization existing for any brands. To me, I think that the first move would have a huge advantage and would be associated with this level of customization. The risk would be that true athletes would not go for an “all-purpose” shoe, and that these are the people who are most likely to pay up for this level of shoe. In terms of cannibalization, I actually don’t think this would be a concern – i see this as a marketing technique to win share over other brands and would re-enforce repeat buys on non-customized shoes.
Incredibly informative read! I enjoyed learning about UA’s advancements in 3D printing and differentiation, particularly after just reading about Nike. I see price and incorporating consumer feedback as two big levers that UA should be thinking about. The sustainability of an advancement like this will be a key driver of how successful this product will be in the coming years. In the short-term, I see the huge value of UA being able to drive up its brand image in the market as a disruptor and possibly an opening for them to tie in some of the other product development accelerators we have been discussing, such as open innovation. As they seek to improve their 3D printed shoes, greater involvement from their consumer base could amplify the buzz around this groundbreaking innovation.