Sneakers. They let us run for miles and miles, giving us speed and momentum, yet making them is no quick business.

It takes around four months to complete the production and distribution cycle for a pair of sneakers. Sixty days to manufacture the component parts and put them together, then the same again to get the boxed-up shoes from factory to store – often via long-haul flights.

This complex supply chain is slowed down by the decision of big sports footwear brands to entrust manufacturing of the various component parts to specialist suppliers who are often based in different countries. After these parts have been produced, the shoes are assembled by hand – so that the components can be stitched and glued together – in a factory which in the majority of cases is situated far from the end market.

The upshot is a globalised business model, optimised in terms of cost but too slow from a timings perspective.

The question that surely springs to mind is this: can such a system continue to work in the long term, especially in this era of e-commerce, social media and apps? This is a world in which brands take each other on at distance with collections that change and evolve at dizzying rates. Well, to put it bluntly, it simply has to work. There’s no way the model of decentralised production can be dismantled overnight.

That said, there’s no law against experimenting with alternatives. After all, it could mean securing continued success in the future!


Adidas’s gamble

Adidas has already given it a go with Speedfactory. The idea is to revolutionise and boost the dynamism of the sneakers industry, which has in some respects remained unchanged for 40 years.

Of course, the design, materials and integrated technology associated with footwear are all in a constant state of evolution, but production decentralisation has become standard for all – as has the time to market.

All except for the two Speedfactories already opened by the German company, the first in Ansbach, Germany and the second in Atlanta, USA.

It’s a new model designed to speed up the process and ensure products get to market quicker.

So how does it work? There are two key facets to the process.

Number one: design, manufacturing, assembly and sale occur in the same geographic area, thus eliminating the need for shoes to make transatlantic flights once they’ve been boxed up.

Number two: robots are used for the hardest and most time-consuming jobs. Where possible, Adidas uses the fusion technique instead of stitching and gluing individual parts, with machines responsible for carrying this out. There are 160 employees working at Speedfactory, compared with an average of over 500 employed in delocalised footwear factories.


Benefits and limitations of the lightning-quick factory

This model makes production more flexible and cuts manufacturing times from 60 to 20 days, thus making it possible both to reduce the time to market of new releases and satisfy the need to restock individual models or sizes through small-scale, ad-hoc batches. On top of that, the machine-led fusion technique is more precise than manual labour.
So, the shoes are made to a very high standard, in less time and at a lower cost.

Too good to be true? Well, in truth, the “lightning-quick” factory is just a tiny drop in the Adidas universe.

Let’s look at the numbers. A huge 97% of the 360 million pairs of shoes produced by the German multinational in 2016 were manufactured in Asia, while the Ansbach and Atlanta plants are aiming to reach one million pairs each by 2020.


The future: going back to our roots?

Evidently, in terms of quantity there is not yet – and perhaps there never will be – any competition between the standard model and the new experiment. Yet when you think about it, the new model represents a return to our roots in terms of the way we manufacture footwear: an industry in which the entire product cycle – design, production and distribution – takes place in small geographical areas.

Speedfactory is certainly a gamble worth keeping an eye on, proving as it does that Adidas are not afraid of taking a lesser-known route towards the goal of sustainability.