Adidas, the German sportswear manufacturing giant, is the pioneer of 3D printing in the footwear industry. It has managed to revolutionise how shoes are manufactured and this is evident from the range of 3D printed footwear lines like Futurecraft 4D, AlphaEdge 4D, 4D Run 1.0, etc., successfully launched over the past few years.
Since close to a decade now, Adidas has focussed its attention on shifting its manufacturing technology from analog to digital and the 3D printed footwear project has been the one to drive this shift.
Adidas has struck a fine balance between eye-catchy designing, use of data, and the revolutionary 3D printing technology coupled with proactive and timely decisions.
But what made Adidas believe in 3D printing technology and why was it able to achieve mastery at 3D printing in the footwear industry? We explore some of these reasons in this article.
FOCUS ON INNOVATION
According to the company, innovation is at the core of all its products. The innovations start right from the time a product concept originates and ends only when the product is manufactured. The innovation has many shades and it not only involves the product but also how the product is manufactured.
But the two most important aspects affecting any product is its material and the manufacturing process. These factors also affect the environment the most. And so to keep the carbon footprint at its lowest, Adidas regularly runs programs to reduce carbon emissions from all its products.
Innovations like focusing on thinner or lighter materials resulting in reduced waste and the carbon footprint, dry-dyeing clothes to save water, chemicals & energy are commonplace at Adidas. Approaching the innovation challenge from an environmental perspective helps Adidas make products that are better for consumers and better for the planet, too.
This is the core innovation philosophy that has led the company to bring 3D printing in the footwear industry and its growing 3D printed footwear line FutureCraft 4D, Alphaedge 4D, Y-3 Runner 4D II Sneakers, 4D Run 1.0, and more is a testament to that fact.
TRUSTING NEW TECHNOLOGY
3D printing has been around for more than three decades but it is still being developed and companies are finding new applications for it. The main barrier to adoption to 3D printing, contrary to popular belief, is the ‘Mindset of Leaders’. The mindset of manufacturing products in a certain way and getting comfortable in the same has created a very strong resistance to change and adopt better technology.
Adidas knew that to introduce 3D printing in the footwear industry it has to trust a new technology and so from the better part of the last decade as spent on learning about the 3D printing technology.
Adidas decided to use DLS™ 3D printing technology, developed and patented by Carbon, one of the fastest-growing 3D printing Startups in the world. With this trust, both the companies’ combined their forces to start their journey towards manufacturing the first-ever 3D printed footwear. They worked on developing a 3D printed shoe that can be manufactured on-demand to suit the customers’ demand but also deliver superior performance.
3D printing allowed Adidas to make real use of the data sets of their users and convert this data into a physical product. The biomechanical data collected from its users over the years could be analysed and turned into a customised mid-sole pattern. A pattern that can be structured according to the individual wearing the shoe. This was a step towards personalisation.
But as much as it was exciting to see the magic happening in front of their eyes, the technology also exposed some of its limitations. For a company like Adidas that manufactures millions of pairs of shoes per year, 3D printing had severe limitations on the speed and volume of manufacturing. But the advantages were too strong to let go and so they went forward with the technology and test it out in short limited editions to bring out a revolutionary product to the market and let the customers decide about the success of 3D printing.
The first product was sold out and was a great success that served as a proof of acceptance by its customers. From then on, there was no looking back.
It is interesting to note that it took merely 11 months from the time Adidas and Carbon first met in January 2013 to launch Futurecraft 4D.
Adidas has always believed in building partnerships to leverage individual expertise to bring new products for the customer. Adidas has brought 3D printing in the footwear industry by making multiple partnerships.
One such important partnership is with Carbon – the world’s leading Digital Manufacturing Platform, to manufacture a 3D printed footwear series – the Futurecraft 4D (also Alphaedge 4D range later). This range is a marvel in itself particularly due to the complex midsole structure made possible by Carbon’s proprietary 3D printing technology called Digital Light Synthesis™ (DLS).
Carbon is one of the fastest-growing 3D printing Startups in the world and its proprietary DLS™ technology is a step ahead of the competition giving an edge to whoever uses it.
Adidas has found great value in this partnership as the collaboration has led to the launch of multiple 3D printed shoes and also helped in developing some custom materials to enhance product quality. Additionally, with 3D printing, Carbon can use the data points (like pressure points, foot structure, etc.) collected by Adidas and use it to convert them into a real shoe. Such a level of data to product conversion is unprecedented in manufacturing history.
Adidas also partnered with Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto to design Y-3 Runner 4D II Sneakers in January 2019.
Additionally, Adidas also collaborated with Continental, a German automotive manufacturing company, resulting in a new rubber outsole for the same Y-3 Runner 4D II Sneakers.
The midsole of Futurecraft 4D is a ground-breaking innovation in itself. The Adidas shoe has a lattice structured midsole that not only meets the performance parameters but also delivers comfort to the users. The design allows Adidas to provide bespoke athletic footwear by altering the cushioning properties throughout the shoe. This gives new dimensions to manufacturing as it takes customization to a whole new level.
The technology has allowed Adidas to use its vast set of biomechanical data to rapidly convert the data directly into a customized shoe for the athlete. A level of customization never reached before for a volume produced by Adidas.
In addition to Futurecraft 4D, Adidas also launched Alphaedge 4D and Y-3 Runner 4D II Sneakers by collaborating with Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto and using the same 3D printing technology from Carbon. These sneakers too were 3D printed and were made available to the public in a sharp red colour in the first launch in January 2019 and then the second launch in April 2019 in new bone/white colour. The new shoe had a wider foot-bed and a thicker and higher midsole.
The futuristic shoe also has a snug, sock-like upper with a neoprene tongue and leather accents at the toe and heel and boasts of an improved grip and traction that was possible due to a collaboration with Continental, a German automotive manufacturing company, resulting in a new rubber outsole.
With innovation at its core, the trust put on the new technology, some crucial partnerships, and the drive to innovate the design and deliver a high-performance product, Adidas managed to transform the footwear industry. For Adidas, 3D printing in the footwear industry is an entry pass to the sports realm and Adidas with its 3D printed footwear line has proved the efficacy of the technology in the sports industry.
Adidas, by pioneering the use of digital manufacturing in footwear products, has proven the efficacy of 3D printing in mass customisation. But in essence, it has proven the impact of the technology on the entire sports realm. The next step for Adidas is surely the application of 3D printing in other sporting goods like tennis rackets, headgears, protective equipment (in sports like hockey & rugby), and all sorts of customised products.
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