By David Baum
Consumers increasingly demand goods that are hip and yet tailored specifically for them. That is a tall order for the shoe manufacturing industry, which relies on inflexible supply chains and manufacturing processes to bring, for example, tens of billions of shoes to the $52 billion US market. Now, however, adidas is using technology from 3D printing outfit Carbon, Inc. to sidestep the traditional design/prototype/production cycle, and actually allow customers to order shoes tailored to their exact specifications. In contrast to earlier generations of 3D printers, Carbon printers are built for mass production lines, which means adidas gets the best of both worlds—customization at mass scale.
It all began when adidas set out to create shoes with variable properties across the midsole, hoping to allow a level of customization that would accommodate different body weights, running styles, and foot contours. The midsole, as the name would indicate, is the part of the shoe located between the exterior bottom where the rubber hits the road, and the insole, which is in direct contact with a person’s foot and is integral to the performance and feel of a given shoe.
Product designers at adidas knew this type of customization would improve shoe performance for different people and sports, but the task of customization presented a difficult hurdle. Midsoles cannot be injection- or compression-molded in one piece with properties that vary across the part. Although they can be assembled from multiple parts through a labor-intensive process, this introduces multiple potential points of failure.
Of course, adidas could create custom soles with a 3D printing process, but 3D printers are generally not designed for manufacturing at scale. According to Luke Kelly, vice president of finance at Carbon, 3D printing is actually a bit of a misnomer. Up to now, the 3D printing technologies have been much more like 2D printing over and over again, laying down material in successive layers, gradually building an object. The processes are slow and yield inferior materials—definitely not what adidas was looking for in a high-performance athletic shoe. Thus, while adidas could use a 3D printing process to create prototypes of its midsoles, the final design was constrained by the ultimate production process—injection and compression molding.
Carbon’s Unique Process
Then Carbon came along. Carbon’s M-Series 3D printers use a unique process that transforms liquid polymer into seamless objects in one continuous cycle, allowing designers to omit the intermediate steps of prototyping and tooling when creating finished products. This rapid design and production cycle enabled adidas to skip prototyping altogether, and iterate more than 50 different lattices for the midsole before landing on the current design.
Rather than mass-producing many identical copies of stamped or molded materials, adidas can fashion soles for each customer’s weight, foot contours, and running habits—getting closer to that much-vaunted goal of manufacturing: economically delivering goods to a “market of one.” The result is a new generation of athletic shoes, and the first mass-produced 3D footwear in the world.
Five thousand pairs of these unique “4D” shoes will be available this fall, and more than 100,000 by the end of 2018. The first generation of FutureCraft 4D will generate designs based on decades of athlete performance data from adidas. The ultimate vision is that customers will be able to visit an adidas store, run briefly on a treadmill, and instantly obtain a 3D-printed shoe based on their exact contours and pressure points.
Powered by the Cloud
Unlike its unique manufacturing process, Carbon wanted to base its business operations on standard software applications—with an emphasis on configuration, not customization. To get up to speed quickly, Carbon looked to Oracle Cloud. Carbon is now rolling out standard Oracle Cloud processes for customer service, finance, procurement, human capital management, inventory, order management, manufacturing, and supply chain. Its business is based on eight key business flows, such as plan to make, design to release, and order to cash, each anchored by Oracle master data natively embedded in the cloud systems.
Kelly says having connected information systems in the cloud makes it easier to interact with a global supply chain in an economical way—a key advantage as Carbon ramps up production with global brands.
David Baum is a California-based freelancer who frequently writes about the intersection of science, technology, and culture.