How Technology Can Help Build the Footwear Factory of the Future

The cliché is true: Consumers want their footwear to make them run faster and jump higher.

However, the footwear industry is in a race of its own to speed up production, adopt sustainable manufacturing practices and churn out customized products that are both affordable and perform better than mass-produced footwear.

It’s no easy task, but the future factory described by MIRAS3D Innovation founder Natacha Alpert at FMNII’s Footwear Innovation Summit in Los Angeles on Tuesday takes into account each of the obstacles.

And technology will be the solution to overcome these industry-wide pain points.

By 2020 to 2025, Alpert said innovation will have moved on from 3-D printing and scanning to focus on wearable technology, 3-D hologram design, 4-D manufacturing, biofabricated materials and in-store manufacturing.

This flood of innovation, coupled with the next generation of consumers being born into a world where robots and AI are a norm, is a tipping point for the footwear industry, which has arguably been slow to advance with technology.

But future consumers will expect to have these technologies at the ready.

“We have to prepare and begin to think about how we’re going to have an advantage in the market,” Alpert said. “We don’t have a lot of time because [young consumers] are shopping around and there will be brands around the next five or ten years ready to overtake you.”

The future factory

Speeding up the footwear supply chain will be a key factor in the footwear factory of the future. With automation and AI, 24-hour production will be 100 percent feasible, according to Alpert.

“Supply chains will become highly integrated, increasingly intelligent and even self-managing,” she said.

Alpert compares the future footwear factory to other industries like automotive and aerospace, which have embraced cognitive computing and analytic techniques — tools she believes will be very important to production environments and will create greater agility and flexibility.

“Basically, we’re taking all the data from a million foot scans that you may have and bringing that down to the production line and figuring out how to aggregate that data to make the perfect size eight for your brand,” she said.

Cognitive computing, she added, will be especially important for networks of smaller, more nimble factories that will be better able to customize production for specific regions. Many of the industry’s problems, Alpert added, relate to factories and speed to market. And local production could be part of the solution.

“You can have the main factory offshore, but have an arm of that manufacturing here in the United States for short production runs, sampling or prototyping. Think of how amazing that would be to have a part of your collection made in the United States,” she said.

Brands will also have to invest in training to make local manufacturing a reality.

“One of the most important things is human capital transformation,” Alpert said. The sector needs to overcome the skill gap and equip employees with the skills that are going to be required, whether it’s through schools or internal training.

“You have to look at the jobs that are going to be relevant for the future when you’re hiring and when you’re building teams,” she said. “There’s going to be jobs that don’t even exist yet. There was no job at Instagram or Facebook 30 years ago. There will be hybrid jobs that are design engineer alchemists that don’t exist yet.”

Editor’s Note: This story was reported by FN’s sister magazine Sourcing Journal. For more, visit SourcingJournal.com.

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