The dictum Change is Good has certainly been tested over the past 12+ months.  Covid-related shutdowns and disruptions to the global supply chain, exacerbated by the shifting sands of geopolitics in the US, EU and Asia, have caused challenges in lead times, risk, inventory management, freight and tariffs.  Consumer product preferences have morphed with Covid-related changes in work patterns and lifestyles.  Pre-Covid industry trends in mass customization and sustainability have gathered steam and further amplified supply chain challenges.  How will the industry react as the post-Covid era emerges on the horizon?  Will it snap back to the shape it had before, or embrace the opportunity for change? Let’s examine the possibilities in three vital areas.

Local Manufacturing

Let’s take a step back and look at how footwear is manufactured today.  A typical pair of shoes contains 100+ parts and involves 200+ manufacturing steps with multiple operations such as injection molding, die cutting, screen printing, strobel stitching, heat pressing and steaming.  The uppers represent a majority of the part count and manufacturing steps, but have not seen the level of new technology insertion as the soles.  Manual operations and the corresponding labor costs have restricted manufacturing to low-cost countries in Asia, far away from consumers in Europe and Americas – which is certainly not an exclusively footwear phenomenon.  Covid has exposed the lack of resiliency in the global supply chain of footwear and apparel.  Shipping delays, higher inventory levels and higher tariffs have thrown a wrench in this seemingly well-oiled machine. 

Will this make footwear and apparel brands mitigate their risk through targeted increases in manufacturing in alternative lower-cost geographies, e.g. Eastern Europe, North Africa, Central America, or even within Western Europe and US, and leverage it to differentiate the brand?  For the brands, it will be about capital investment, availability of skills and expertise, and consumer acceptance of potential higher cost.

Automated additive manufacturing techniques can facilitate local manufacturing as well as mass customization.  Technologies such as Carbon® are already in commercial use for midsoles in athletic footwear.  The technology gap in footwear uppers is something we are working to address with Voxel8’s multi-material, additive manufacturing technology – digitally printing flexible elastomeric materials with on-the-fly tuning of mechanical properties onto textiles, thus providing embedded functionality and high-resolution graphics in a single pass.

This is the sort of revolutionary thinking that can reduce footwear part count and manufacturing steps by over 50% while enabling rapid product development to production.  It can be extended to other textile-based applications such as bras and unique embellishments on apparel and accessories, and other innovators are approaching long-standing production problems and bottlenecks in their own unique ways.  Setting up these types of cutting-edge technologies in “local” sites will allow brands to react quickly to market trends and consumer demands in real time, and get unique designs to consumers with shorter lead times. 

Mass Customization

Several global footwear and apparel brands have been testing mass customization business models with enhanced online platforms.  This caters to consumers’ desire for more personalized design choices, or simply shoes, bras or jeans with a better and more comfortable fit.  However, the adoption of custom design, development, manufacturing and delivery models has been slow.  Whether this is due to limitations in technology, or supply chain, or cost, there is an opportunity for brands to step up their game and take advantage of this latent unmet need.

Let’s go back to our footwear manufacturing example.  Many of the traditional manufacturing operations require tooling – and considering the large number of men’s and women’s shoe sizes, each with left and right shoes, it is not uncommon for a single product line to incur $100,000 in tooling cost alone.  This fixed cost needs to be spread out over a large number of identical pairs of shoes which is not amenable to customization.  Software-driven, no-tooling, additive manufacturing techniques can enable custom designs at virtually no incremental cost.  A technology for footwear uppers such as the one we are pioneering at Voxel8 is uniquely positioned to enable custom designs, and when combined with local manufacturing, can allow brands to get custom products to consumers quickly.

Sustainability

Sustainability has been a major driver in footwear and apparel industries since pre-Covid.  With 25 billion pairs of shoes produced globally each year, there is a huge opportunity to impact CO2 emissions during production and recyclability at end of life.  Consumers are demanding this more than ever as brands continue to evolve their sustainability strategy.  A 2012 MIT study** of greenhouse gases in footwear production found that manufacturing processes account for 68% of CO2 emissions and materials account for 29%, for a combined 97% impact on total CO2 emissions.  This includes about 10% contribution from scrap generated during manufacturing.  Scrap reduction is a low hanging fruit that can be directly addressed by additive manufacturing technologies such as Voxel8 that generate essentially no scrap. 

The MIT study also found that while the upper comprises 23% of the weight of the shoe, it is responsible for 41% of the CO2 footprint due to the large number of manufacturing steps involved in the upper.  An additive manufacturing technology that reduces the number of manufacturing steps for uppers could achieve up to 20% reduction in total CO2 emissions which corresponds to about 3kg of CO2 equivalent per pair of shoes.  Plus, there is opportunity for further improvement with the use of bio-sourced materials.  The holy grail is a completely circular model that involves disassembly of the shoes at end of life and totally recyclable materials.  Some companies have started to do this but there are challenges to overcome in design, performance, cost and scale. 

Food for thought

Smart companies will use these tumultuous times as a catalyst for change.  Rethink the way footwear and apparel is not only designed, but also manufactured.  Brands that have previously focused on design and marketing with a hands-off approach to manufacturing will be well served to get more involved in where and how their products are manufactured.  Think of a renewed manufacturing strategy not just as a way to mitigate supply chain risk but rather a source of competitive advantage.  Smaller, more nimble companies will be more adept at competing in this new reality but may lack the resources and scale.  Larger companies with more resources and scale may have to overcome institutional inertia and reluctance for capital investment.  It will not be an easy path for anyone but there is a sense of inevitability.

** “Manufacturing-focused emissions reductions in footwear production,” Journal of Cleaner Production, 44, 18-29, 2013.


About our partner: Founded in 2014 from Harvard University, Voxel8’s sustainable, multi-material digital manufacturing technology is revolutionizing how footwear, apparel and related products are designed and manufactured.  Voxel8’s ActiveLab® solution digitally prints flexible elastomeric materials with on-the-fly tuning of mechanical properties, thus providing embedded functionality and high-resolution graphics in a no-tooling, manufacturing process.  Voxel8 enables rapid product development to prototyping to production, allowing brands to react quickly to market trends and consumer demands in real time, and realize the potential for customization and local production.

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