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Keeping up With Consumer Demand Means Borrowing From Other Industries

The performance demands for even the most casual footwear call for precision and accuracy across all components.

“Consumers pick up on details without necessarily realizing what they are,” said David Smith, sales director of Colortech, a manufacturer of color and additive concentrates for the plastics industry. Smith said in side-by-side experiments, shoppers always gravitate toward the shoe with fully finished small components even if they can’t articulate why. “When you eliminate those typical imperfections, customers might not realize it, but they do appreciate it.”

Smith said Colortech is able to deliver the level of detail that makes a product pop on the shelf because the company works with partners across a wide array of industries, including high-speed rail, automotive, medical supplies and eyewear. And the company’s footwear clients benefit from the rigorous development and testing needed for those products.

When it comes to footwear development, collaboration between fashion brands and Colortech starts from the very beginning. “Our tracking methodologies are first class, and integration starts at the factory level,” Smith said. That includes designing so the midsole and outsole bond together perfectly, keeping shrinkage rates to a minimum and adding in other compounds later.

Smith said it’s also common for footwear brands to approach Colortech with an idea that they have to work out together. One such case, a midsole made with soybean oil, took around 18 months, and was made to meet a footwear brand’s specific specs. In some cases development starts with an existing compound. In others, Colortech starts from scratch. 

Smith said consumer demand—and particularly the increase in availability of consumer feedback—is pushing Colortech to expand the capabilities of its technology. Smith said while other compounds, like EVA, are “mature,” Colortech thinks of PU as having a long runway for innovation, and so the company is happy to let retailers steer that innovation in the right direction. “The standard of having reviews is raising the bar for everybody,” Smith said. “You see reviews pushing footwear brands to make things lighter, give them better resilience and tear strength, make them abrasion-resistant, insole/outsole combos, give them high resilience from low specific gravity. Those are all challenges from a chemical perspective.”

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Working across industries helps Colortech keep up with demand, especially from a cost perspective. Industries like auto and rail have larger R&D budgets, allowing Colortech to develop new products and technologies that would have been cost prohibitive for the footwear industry. One example is an in-mold coating Colortech uses to prevent pinholes and air bubbles on steering wheels and give them additional durability, which the company has also been able to apply to outsole and footbed development. “When you’re working across multiple industries like this, you can re-learn or refine your learning on the shoe side,” Smith said.

Additionally, there are also sustainable benefits to Colortech’s massive network of resources. Smith said that more brands are approaching the company and asking for sustainable options because consumers keep pushing for them. “We try to make as much of our production as sustainable as we can without moving the price needle,” Smith said.

The company has developed a strategy for short production runs with quick color and compound changes that reduces waste, Smith said, and actually creates a new usable byproduct that wasn’t available using traditional production models. “Normally, you end up using around 20,000 gallons of water to clean your systems after a production run,” Smith said. “Now, it’s structured so a small amount of solvent is run through at high pressure, which bonds with the PU and creates a small pile of reusable byproduct.” That reusable, regrindable leftover material is saved, and integrated into products like carpet pads. Smith said Colortech plans to use it in other consumer products, including footbeds, in the near future. “It’s not ready for prime time yet,” Smith said. “But we’re headed to a point where R&D can get it over the hump.”