Adidas Speedfactory … fast and on-demand, 3d-printing and robotics … it’s the future of footwear, and manufacturing

April 10, 2018

Athlete-data driven design. Radical accelerated footwear production. Open Source co-creation. Hyper flexible and localized manufacturing. 3d-printing and intelligent robotics. Sustainable and minimal waste. Personalised and on demand … Welcome to the Speedfactory … located in Ansbach, Germany and a second one has just opened in Atlanta, USA.

Wired magazine takes up the story … Sportswear giant Adidas recently opened a pop-up store inside a Berlin shopping mall. The boutique was part of a corporate experiment called Storefactory—a name as flatly self- explanatory as it is consistent with the convention of German compound nouns. It offered a single product: machine- knit merino wool sweaters, made to order on the spot. Customers stepped up for body scans inside the showroom and then worked with an employee to design their own bespoke pullovers. The sweaters, which cost the equivalent of about $250 apiece, then materialized behind a glass wall in a matter of hours.

The miniature factory behind the glass, which consisted mainly of three industrial knitting machines spitting forth sweaters like dot-matrix printouts, could reportedly produce only 10 garments a day. But the point of the experiment wasn’t to rack up sales numbers. It was to gauge customer enthusiasm for a set of concepts that the company has lately become invested in: digital design; localized, automated manufacturing; and personalized products.

Storefactory was just a small test of these ideas; much bigger experiments were already under way. In late 2015, Adidas had opened a brand-new, heavily automated manufacturing facility in Ansbach, Germany, about 35 miles from its corporate headquarters. Called Speedfactory, the facility would pair a small human workforce with technologies including 3-D printing, robotic arms, and computerized knitting to make running shoes—items that are more typically mass-produced by workers in far-off countries like China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. The factory would cater directly to the European market, with digital designs that could be tweaked ad infinitum and robots that could seamlessly transmute them into footwear customized to the shifting preferences of Continental sneakerheads. By placing factories closer to consumers, Adidas could ostensibly leapfrog over shipping delays and expenses. “What we enable is speed,” said Gerd Manz, vice president of Adidas’ innovation group. “We can react to consumer needs within days.

Speedfactory, Adidas claimed, was “reinventing manufacturing.” Media reports were no less grand. “By bringing production home,” wrote The Economist, “this factory is out to reinvent an industry.”

In September 2016, the first pair of Speedfactory sneakers came off the line: a very-limited- edition running shoe called Futurecraft M.F.G. (Made for Germany). To hype its release, the company put out a 3- minute teaser video highlighting not just the shoe but its manufacturing process. A suspenseful, intense electronic soundtrack set the mood for a series of futuristic close-ups: dusty white residue on a computer keyboard, various digital control panels, an orange robotic arm sliding into action. When Adidas released 500 pairs of the Futurecraft M.F.G. in Berlin, people camped out on the street to buy them, and the sneakers sold out almost instantly.

In October 2017, the company announced a project called AM4—Adidas Made For—a series of sneakers that would be designed with input from various “running influencers,” ostensibly tailored to the needs of specific cities. The shoes are said to be designed around the unique local challenges runners face: in London, apparently, many runners commute by foot; they need sneakers with high visibility for dark nights and rainy days. New York City is constantly under construction and is organized in a grid, so runners need a shoe that can deftly handle multiple 90-degree corners. Los Angeles is hot and by the ocean. In Shanghai, preliminary research suggested that people primarily exercise indoors. All AM4 shoes would be made in the company’s two Speedfactories and released in limited editions.

At some point I became a bit mystified by all of this. It struck me that most decent running shoes on the market could probably handle Manhattan’s grid. And if a selling point of the Speedfactory was expedited time to market, why use it to manufacture shoes that would have to travel from Germany to China? (The ultimate aspiration is to open Speedfactories in many more regions, but not right away.)

It seemed clear that the Speedfactory concept fit into a larger economic narrative; I just wasn’t sure which one. Adidas was not alone in betting on the importance of customization; practically every major consulting company—McKinsey, Bain & Company, Deloitte—has issued a do-or-die report in recent years about how “mass personalization” is the wave of the future. And in glancing ways, Speedfactory simultaneously delivered on the dream of distributed manufacturing that the era of 3-D printing was supposed to usher in, and on Donald Trump’s seemingly hallucinatory campaign promise that factory jobs would return to America. Stories about the factory’s reliance on robots also fed into the jittery discourse around automation replacing human work.

The cynical side of me wondered if perhaps the Speedfactory was an elaborate, expensive branding exercise. As with so many new ideas in our current age of innovation, I couldn’t determine whether the rhetoric surrounding the Speedfactory was deeply optimistic or deeply cynical. I was especially curious about what it might mean for America. But the Atlanta factory had not yet opened. So I went to visit the ur-Speedfactory in Ansbach—effectively its twin. To learn about the future of manufacturing in the American South, I needed to travel approximately 5,800 miles to a cornfield in the middle of Bavaria.

Adidas HQ is in Herzogen aurach, a town of 22,000 just outside of Nuremberg whose claim to fame is that it is home to both Adidas and Puma. The competing sportswear companies were founded by brothers Adolf (Adi) and Rudolf Dassler, rumored to have had a falling out while taking cover in a bunker during World War II. For a time, their rivalry supposedly divided residents; Herzogen aurach was nicknamed “the town of bent necks,” due to the local habit of entering conversation by peering at the feet of one’s interlocutor in order to identify their corporate and social affiliations.

This was not a problem on Adidas’ campus, where affiliation was unambiguous: Everyone in sight was wearing sneakers made by their employer. The campus, dubbed the World of Sports, occupies a sprawling 146-acre former Nazi air base that corporate communications understandably prefers to describe as an old US military station. (After being commandeered by the US Army in 1945, the base was returned to the German government in 1992 and was acquired by Adidas five years later.) Some of the original barracks still stand and have been repurposed as office space. They cut an odd silhouette next to a glass-enclosed cafeteria named Stripes and a mirrored, angular office building named Laces that looks like a high-design airport terminal. Inside Laces, glass walkways crisscross elegantly from side to side, as if pulled through the eyes of a shoe.

The campus holds a full-size soccer pitch, a track, a boxing room, and an outdoor climbing wall. There are multiple outdoor courts for beach volleyball, basketball, and tennis, and employees actually use them. When I visited in early July, small packs of well-shod workers trotted diligently across the campus, threading through sidewalks and toward forest trails. Nearly everyone, on and off the courts, was wearing Adidas apparel along with their sneakers. Disc-like robotic lawnmowers rolled through the grass, munching slowly. Though I am predisposed, as an American Jew descended from Holocaust survivors, to be slightly uneasy at a former Luftwaffe base populated by several thousand well-behaved young people with unifying insignias, the campus had an energetic, spirited vibe. The employees, who hail from all over the world, seemed healthy and happy. It all felt a bit like what you’d imagine if The Nutcracker had been set in a Foot Locker.

Compared with the World of Sports, the Speedfactory—an hour-long bus ride from headquarters—is a relatively featureless box. It is housed in a white office building in the middle of the aforementioned cornfield; the exterior is marked with Adidas flags and the logo of Oechsler Motion, a longtime manufacturing partner, which operates the facility. I went there with a small group of other visitors for a tour. In a carpeted foyer, we pulled on heavy rubber toe caps, a protective measure. Liability thus limited, we traveled down the hallway toward the back of the building and shuffled inside.

The factory was white and bright, about the size of a Home Depot, with high ceilings and no windows. There weren’t many people, though there weren’t that many machines either. Along an assembly line made of three segments, an engineered knit fabric was laser-cut (by robots), shaped and sewn (by humans), and fused into soles (a collaborative, multistep, human-and-machine process). At the far end of the room, an orange robotic arm, perched high on a pedestal atop a particle foam machine, moved in a majestic, elegant, preprogram med sweep.

The raw components of the sneakers being produced inside the Speedfactory were minimal: rolls of engineered knit fabric; finger-wide strips of semi-rigid thermoplastic polyurethane, which fuse to the exterior of a shoe to give it structure; white granules of thermoplastic polyurethane for Adidas’ signature Boost soles; an orange neon liner imported from Italy; and a “floating torsion bar,” purportedly for increased support, that looked like a double-headed intrauterine device.

A worker whistled as he placed oddly shaped, laser-cut flaps of the knit fabric onto a conveyor belt. They looked a bit like Darth Vader’s helmet in silhouette. The conveyor belt glided them through white, cubelike cases with tinted glass, where a machine heat-fused the strips of thermoplastic polyurethane onto the fabric in a precise pattern. A factory worker riding a white forklift rolled slowly past.

Update: Adidas just opened a futuristic new factory — and it will dramatically change how shoes are sold 

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