In my previous article, I looked at why the future of footwear is digital and what that means for the different creative and commercial disciplines within the footwear industry. Now I want to look deeper into the context of digitisation by examining the creative tensions that persist in the footwear design-to-consumer journey, and how those tensions are being impacted (some positively and some negatively) by the additional layer of digitisation being applied to our product lifecycles.

I previously touched on some of the tensions that exist between the various functions and departments within the footwear brand, and wider into the supply chain and with 3rd party vendors. These are what you might class as standard commercial tensions – they exist within any business and in its business-to-business relationships.  Creative tensions are different: some of them contribute in positive ways to the end product, as different departments and disciplines play off one another in a normal, natural way; others are the by-products of friction between long-established ways of working and new attitudes and new technologies.

Footwear at its heart is generally a traditional, some would say old fashioned industry. Many brands – across casual, formal and sports sectors – have been built over many years with designers, product managers, marketeers and sales teams being used to touching and feeling samples throughout the development, commercialisation and sales processes. This tactility has become ingrained in the way that “footwear people” work, and as a consequence the footwear industry as a whole has become known as one of the most physical market segments – an industry that thrives on being able to make contact with its products.  Add to this the need to lab test components and finished products and, crucially, fit test products more than once through development, and you have a process that is accustomed to demanding regular ‘real’ samples.

Even in a world that is rapidly digitising, this is not necessarily a problem, as the work that one department undertakes feeds into – and feeds off – the work of another.  For example, the design team will generally focus on the aesthetics of the product, whether the shape of the last, design of the outsole, materials specified etc. The last modelist may need to adjust the last aesthetic in order to meet fitting requirements, while the development team may need to tweak materials, or seam positions to bring the product into cost parameters.

And further downstream we may see the commercialisation and production teams further modifying the original design to speed production, or make materials procurement simpler.

All of these are normal tensions that have existed in the footwear development process since mass production of footwear began. Every brand has its own version of this with the different departments gaining and losing sway as time progresses, and the cycle of bringing a new product to market will always employ push and pull between different priorities and perspectives.

In some ways this tension is eased when we think about products where the end use or function is paramount. Soccer boots, for example, need to fulfil a very specific role, meeting numerous technical standards along the way. This means that the decisions over what can or cannot be included in the product are simpler: does a decision improve the performance profile of the boot, and if so can we implement it and still meet our margin targets?

But a similar example in traditional welted footwear has a much more complex suite of variables to take into account, since the performance of the final product is much more subjective, and since micro-managing costs are less important. At the higher end of the market, changing the cost by a few pence/cents relatively speaking doesn’t make a difference, but quality, feel, fit and look are king.

Wherever we look in footwear, though, the outcome of tension is always compromise – no matter whether we’re talking about a relatively binary compromise between function and price, or a much more complex mix of quality, cost, manufacturing, materials availability, brand positioning, and sustainability.

What happens to those questions of compromise if we now layer in digital twins? And more importantly, what happens when we layer in the additional steps of creating those digital twins?”

Will it speed things up or slow them down? Will we be making the right compromises harder to identify, or easier?

This is the crux of the tension that, in my first-hand experience, can accompany the use of digital twins.

In my previous article I stated there is no right or wrong answer to the question of whether (and how) to use digital twins of physical products, and every brand will have a slightly different view of the dynamics that make the answer to the question. In absolute terms this is true: no business should adopt a technology that does not fit their culture. However, if we believe the ultimate arbiter of whether a product is any good or not is the consumer, and we work backwards from the goal of meeting their needs, then the question can be reframed as this: will using digital twins create more work to achieve that goal, or less?

That question is, in my experience, where digital product creation initiatives often falter, because the perspectives of different people within the same organisation can vary dramatically depending on their priorities, and where they sit on the normal continuum of creation and commercialisation.

If we look at the development process as a pair of linked parallel tracks consisting of one track for aesthetic development (proportions, materials, colours, lines etc) and the other for technical development (performance, fit, lab testing, cost, ease of manufacture) we can navigate the route from concept to consumer and also map out the best tools for each part of the journey – both analogue and digital.

Of course, in the ideal, digital-native world we would do everything in digital and only make real shoes when orders are taken. There are some extreme examples of this occurring today, but generally in the mainstream footwear world this only happens when a product has to be rushed to market in order to meet a specific need. In normal circumstances human nature demands that we see a number of real samples before committing to orders, and that need is unlikely to change as long as footwear remains a tactile business.

As development progresses, though, both digital and physical tools have huge potential, and it’s the relationship between those two parallel tracks (and the environments they want to work in) that create the tension I’m describing between digital and physical solutions.

The development process for footwear starts with the last; or the 3D shape/forme that the shoe is based on. This sits on the technical development track from the point of view of the dimensions, but sits on the aesthetic track in terms of how it looks. As most brands will have set standards for last dimensions, we can assume we have a reasonably good start point for the fitting properties of the final product.

Taking that last into the digital world and using it as a base for design is now a well-established process. Most design teams will design either in 2D on a side view of the last or in 3D drawing the lines directly on the surface of the last. The 3D version would normally be the basis for the digital twin. Using the appropriate tools we can now build on this to create 3D data for the outsole and upper, adding materials, thicknesses and textures along the way. This should be a relatively quick process and can be used to make the early decisions – either looking at the product on the screen directly in the 3d software, or by adding photo realistic rendering and lighting, and going one step further and creating a 3D print. (Adding the 3D print output at this stage can cause its own tensions as the surface quality of the 3D print is unlikely to match the materials selected for the product.)

This is the part of the process where the digital twin can save a great deal of time and money. Quick decisions, either to approve, reject or suggest changes on the digital twin can be actioned immediately. This is especially beneficial if amendments are needed as these can be turned round very quickly and a new decision made. If we are to request another real sample after reviewing a previous sample we would need to wait somewhere in the region of three weeks if sourced from Asia. The time element is clear, but the cost of creating and shipping the sample also needs to be considered.

However, this is the time in the process when the tensions between those who are confident in the digital twin and those who are less confident is likely to be at its greatest. Traditionalists will want to hold a real sample, to touch, feel and flex the sample – getting a ‘feel’ for the product in the literal sense, while people who place greater faith in the capabilities of digital twins to accurately reflect the full range of physical characteristics will be more confident in making decisions without holding a physical sample at all.

So, in today’s market, is that physical sample still absolutely necessary? Or are we perpetuating a tension between tradition and digital that no longer needs to exist?

In purely objective terms, the physical sample does not need to exist. In emotive, subjective terms, in many cases it does. And the tension between those two perspectives will be resolved in different ways depending on the given brand’s culture.

Ultimately the success of using digital twins comes down to the confidence the brand has in the technology and how well it knows its consumers and target market. Or conversely, the confidence the brand has in its people to make decisions based on the tools they have.