Here’s How the ‘World’s Smallest Shoe Factory’ Produces Custom Shoes in Six Minutes

All good things do come in small packages, just look to Keen’s footwear-producing robot, or Uneekbot — a fun-size manufacturing marvel that assembles shoes in six minutes. Yes, six minutes. The outdoor lifestyle brand calls it the “world’s smallest shoe factory.”

The mobile mini machine is on a national tour highlighting its shoe automation technology, having recently stopped at Portland’s First Thursday in the Pearl festival on May 3 as well as a presentation in Los Angeles for students at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising on April 10. The tour’s East Coast leg begins mid-September.

Uneekbot, keen
Uneekbot
CREDIT: Courtesy

With the Uneekbot, Keen aims to challenge the supply chain process by reducing environmental impact and educate budding designers on innovation, creativity and the technology that’s driving the industry.

“Keen’s visit to FIDM provided many students their first opportunity to see the art and science of robotics applied to the footwear manufacturing process,” said Eva Gilbert, FIDM’s Academic Chair. “All were eager to apply for summer internships and a future opportunity to pitch their own new business ideas and product concepts to Keen management.”

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Benjamin Kolligs, Keen robotics engineer.
CREDIT: Courtesy

In addition to recruitment, Keen’s conversation explained how robotics will shape the footwear industry’s growth.

“It’s pushing the boundaries on same-day manufacturing and production. Someone can go in and say, ‘I want a 7.5 women’s in blue and yellow because I’m a Golden State Warriors fan’ and she is able to walk away with a pair of shoes in 30 minutes,” said Scott Owen, Keen project manager. “People want a special product that’s unique and something made for them, and this robot can do that.”

Keen's Uneekbot
Keen's Uneekbot
CREDIT: Courtesy

Still, humans will play a role as automated technology improves efficiency. The machine must first be loaded and fastened with a sole installed with plates by a handler who readies it for threading through the eyestay. Each sole is specific to the sex and size; they are made special for the robots and are not the soles used during the traditional shoemaking process. The sole has to be precisely added or the robot’s needle might go in the wrong spot and tear through the material. A slight error in the wrong direction, just millimeters off, will create problems.

Colors are selected by menus on the robot from pre-loaded spools. Ten different spools can be loaded — five on one side and five on the other — for 25 different combinations.

After the robot performs an automated assessment, it begins making the shoe, and at this point it can run without supervision. Next, it begins the weaving of the laces. The fixture is then removed manually, and then the sole needs to be finished by hand.

Keen's Uneekbot
Keen's Uneekbot
CREDIT: Courtesy

The technology isn’t advanced enough yet to be fully automated and go off without a hitch, which is why the human component is necessary in the first and last stages of production.

“Robots are still finicky, so you need a team of engineers to make sure it runs smoothly,” Owen explained. “We wanted our Uneekbot to have a human element. We have someone who can see problems and work with the engineers to fix them — we don’t want to fully automate it or we’ll lose that.”

In the final stages, the human removes the shoes from the bot and then takes bungee material to thread through the shoe loops. Bungee material is used to make it tight, and then more is added to extend room around the insole so the foot can fit.

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Uneekbot's completed slipper.
CREDIT: Courtesy
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Completed slippers by Keen's Uneekbot
CREDIT: Courtesy

In total, the manufacturing process takes 15 to 20 minute with human and robotic assistance.

What’s produced is a comfortable outdoor sandal that can be used for the water and beach, and running. Its polyurethane sole molds to the foot.

Added Owen, “In Asia the Uneek is seen as a fashion and streetwear shoe — they are on par with the major athletic footwear brands and frequently used on the runway.”

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Uneekbot's finished shoes.
CREDIT: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages for FIDM
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Scott Owen, special projects manager and Eva Gilbert, FIDM's Academic Chair.
CREDIT: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages for FIDM

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