What will the future of manufacturing look like? It may just see us 3-D printing everything from clothes to spare auto parts. It’s an evolving landscape that will almost certainly involve enhanced customization, increased speed to market, and greater automation and flexibility. And many companies believe making the right move now has the potential to make or break a business in the years ahead.
Adidas Speed Factory is the global sports giant’s opening bet on this future of manufacturing with a first pilot version opening this week in Ansbach, Germany. The automated facility uses what the company calls “intelligent robotic technology.” This is the initial step in an overarching strategy that envisions the local manufacturing of products running alongside the more traditional mass production methods the company currently employs. The intention is to react to meet local needs, and respond quickly with market customization in locations all over the world.
Adidas vice president of technology innovation Gerd Manz says the company is just crossing the starting line of a marathon. “We’re going to run that marathon really fast, but our vision is we want to have a decentralized, flexible manufacturing network that can react locally to consumer demands,” says Manz. “We started looking into this quite a while ago and we’ve moved away from looking only at product innovation, which is traditionally the case in our industry. We’ve been trying to look more at innovation in experience as well, trying to start higher up the value stream.”
The Ansbach Speed Factory will deliver its first 500 robot-built shoes in the first half of next year. But the footwear produced there will not simply be identical copies of products already made elsewhere. “We’re not going to build robots that make shoes from yesterday,” says Manz. “We’re working with new materials and new manufacturing processes. It’s different shoes made in different ways.”
The new shoe will feature Adidas’s Boost cushioning technology and Manz says, “It’s a performance running shoe, with a stunning design that is enabled by the manufacturing technology we’re using and is not really possible to do in the traditional way.”
While the Ansbach Speed Factory is a pilot project and certainly viewed as a learning experience, Manz says that it may one day be possible to manufacture some of Adidas’s best-known styles using robotic technology. “We can make certain types of shoe, for example, we can make a Gazelle-type shoe, but it’s not going to be made in the same way as the traditional methods,” says Manz. “You may want your Gazelle in the future to use local materials, you might want it to be made widely adhesive-free and without chemicals. These are new things that are going to be enabled by the technology we are building.”
The company sees having local Speed Factories as being in addition to, rather than instead of, or intended to replace, their current manufacturing system. Furthermore, it’s also aimed at a attracting a whole new group of customers. Manz says, “We don’t see this as a competition, we see it as complementary to what is going on right now. Frankly, we are growing so fast at the moment we have a hard time finding capacity in our existing supply chain. This new model we are creating will talk to a different consumer. It is a market no one is in yet.”
At the heart of all this is the concept of “opening up” the company, whereby customers are involved in the creation of products. “We have a belief we can inspire and enable the creators out there, be so disruptively innovative and have people be part of that innovative mindset,” Manz says. “We really want to open up as a company. There is huge potential there.”
Once the first Speed Factory is up and running, the intention is to open a larger facility in Germany, and the company is also currently searching for suitable sites in the U.S. Manz says that how the plan develops will very much depend on lessons learned during each step of the way. New facilities may concentrate on reacting to local market nuances initially, then later focus on customization and adaptation on an individual basis.
“The first Speed Factory, as a pilot, is going to make 500 pairs, but when it comes to individualization down the road, when we are introducing Speed Factories in other markets, we will have to decide if we’re going to do individualization from the beginning,” Manz says. “What we’ll certainly do is market customization. From a tech perspective, it’s pretty similar. Generally we’re going to be much faster reacting to consumer needs, whether it’s individual or market needs.”