In retailers’ hot pursuit for that magic trick to entice consumers on a mass scale, 3D printing has more or less come and gone as a fad, but to sneaker giant Adidas, mass-market 3D-printed products may soon be a reality with sizable retail promise.
Adidas is not only planning to introduce by the end of this year 100,000 pairs of shoes with plastic midsoles made via a new 3D technology created by Silicon Valley startup Carbon; it’s also making moves to ramp up that production to millions in the coming years, said James Carnes, vice president of strategy creation for Adidas’s namesake brand.
“We have a really aggressive plan to scale this,” Carnes said in an interview. “We are scaling a production. The plan will put us as the (world’s) biggest producer of 3D-printed products.”
For instance, by Q3 alone, Adidas will have access to enough printers from Carbon to make one million pairs of 3D-printed sneakers, Joseph DeSimone, CEO and cofounder of Carbon, told me.
Adidas declined to say when and where it will drop the rest of the 100,000 pairs this year after its Futurecraft 4D — the first commercial release of those new 3D shoes, at $300 a pop in select stores in New York — sold out in January. As an indicator of potential demand, some of those shoes have commanded a healthy premium and been resold for several times their original price at sneaker auction site StockX.
Want another idea of just how big Adidas envisions this new 3D business could be? Carnes compared its potential to Adidas’s popular Boost cushioning shoe franchise. Introduced in 2013 with 100,000 pairs made in the first year as well, the Boost shoe line has expanded to over 50 million pairs a year. That’s over 10% of the 400 million pairs Adidas makes each year, Carnes said.
What’s at stake? As retailers and brands fight to sell products that meet consumers’ individual needs, shorten the so-called product cycle time, and create an “on-demand” model to make merchandise close to when there’s demand to reduce excess inventory risk, Carnes said Carbon’s technology will help Adidas accomplish all of those goals.
How? Carnes, a 22-year Adidas veteran, described Carbon’s technology as “night and day” from the traditional 3D-printing process that requires injection-molding and uses laser to harden powder polymer, a process he said could be “messy.” Adidas is no stranger to 3D printing and has used it to make prototype shoes for some 16 years, but various forms of traditional 3D printing technology could never have been applied for mass production because of the time and cost it would have involved, Carnes said.
In contrast, Carbon’s “Digital Light Synthesis” technology uses light and oxygen to make plastic objects like the sneaker midsoles from a pool of resin, without any messy waste or need for injection molding. Any design can be tweaked — and customized — and fed to be printed through a cloud-based software model. That means Adidas could eventually experiment with scanning consumers’ feet in stores and gathering data like their gait for personalized shoes. The new printing process is also “100 times faster” than that of traditional 3D shoe printing, Carnes said.
“That’s how retail will be shaped in the future,” with this experience at a store, he said. You get “some sort of physical assessment, whether it’s your fit or movement specifications, that translates to your actual needs. Somebody with the same size will run or walk differently (from you). It’s completely personal to you.”
The new 3D printing process doesn’t just have the edge over traditional 3D printing. It may also have the potential to reshape where Adidas makes products.
For instance, it took just 11 months from the time Adidas and Carbon first met to Futurecraft 4D’s January release. In comparison, a pair of sneakers via normal factory production could take 15 to 18 months from design to arrival in stores, Carnes said, adding that the costly steel-molding required for prototypes alone could consume eight months of that cycle time.
“We are in an industry driven by newness,” he said. With this new 3D technology, “we could create products locally and cut down on shipping time. In terms of cost, we don’t have to make a full set of molds.”
As a case in point, while Adidas still makes most of its shoes in Asia, the Futurecraft 4D shoes unveiled in New York came out of a factory about an hour away from Adidas’s headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany. The rest of the 100,000 pairs this year will come from either that factory or Carbon’s Silicon Valley office, Adidas said.
Adidas is putting its money where its mouth is. It’s one of the key investors behind Carbon and has a top executive on Carbon’s board. It also has an exclusive contract to use the startup’s technology in the sports industry, potentially giving it a leg up on rivals including Nike and Under Amour, both of which, to be sure, have their own 3D initiatives.