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How the Auto Industry Drives Footwear Innovation

Footwear today is performance-driven, and the focus on producing shoes that can withstand weather, walking and whatever may come requires constant innovation.

Whether it’s protecting workers or propelling runners, the technology used in insoles, midsoles and outsoles requires a lot of R&D—some of which is powered by companies that cut their teeth in the auto industry, another sector in which contact with the ground is the specific focus. And it doesn’t hurt when the names associated with these companies are Michelin and Goodyear, two household names that carry a hefty brand promise.

“Michelin is synonymous with quality and grip,” explained Filippo Sartor, partnership development manager at licensee JV International. While outsoles and tires have some fundamental differences, Sartor explained, they both need to sustain extended, often very rough, contact with the ground. Michelin is renowned for its durable tires, so it makes sense that the rubber the company supplies for outsoles would meet similar performance standards. “It’s safety—that’s the Michelin brand.”

Similarly, the Goodyear name gives a lot of weight to the company’s branded outsoles and insoles, according to Jesse Pasternak, vice president licensee Polyconix.

“Our customers today are very sophisticated in the shoe industry,” Pasternak said. Consumers are consistently growing more aware of the testing and data surrounding footwear tech, so putting Goodyear’s resources behind footwear components strengthens consumer confidence as well as product quality and performance.

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While aspects of development and testing diverge based on product needs—tires are dynamic and constantly moving against the pavement, while shoes strike down and lift up again—Sartor said Michelin Technical Soles uses machines to simulate scenarios like wading through long rivers or scaling steep inclines, in much the same way automotive companies road-test cars in simulations long before they ever leave the lab.

“There are components from automotive that you can’t implement in footwear, in part for weight but also due to general comfort and performance,” Sartor explained. Michelin’s job, instead, is to analyze new ways technology can enter a shoe design, based on trends and consumer needs. In some cases, Michelin Soles will borrow a material innovation for footwear from automotive products like a new way of integrating textiles into rubber, for example, or ways of making components thinner and stronger.

Even considering the industries’ different needs, Pasternak said, Goodyear’s tire-testing pros are rife with knowledge about traction, durability, temperature-dependent properties and flexural stress. “That translates directly to footwear, although with different dynamic configurations,” Pasternak said.

Sartor agrees footwear requires similar expertise, just in a different application. “Keep in mind that rubber by itself cannot achieve 100 percent performance,” Sartor said. It takes the technical know-how of a company with expertise in the materials to help footwear brands navigate their materials options and understand the context that materials are used in. “The critical part is where you intervene and develop with their amazing professional engineering team,” Sartor said.

Pasternak agreed, emphasizing the collaboration with Goodyear’s technical team is invaluable. “We not only benefit from their chemical and tire experience, but we get a much broader view of testing methods,” Pasternak added. “Their dynamic analysis is typically more sophisticated than in our industry.”

The latest example of Goodyear’s automotive and footwear know-how convergence is WeatherAdapt, which features characteristics taken from Goodyear’s WeatherReady tires. WeatherAdapt is made from a patented polymer that uses soy oil instead of petroleum and remains pliable in extremely low temperatures.

“That works very well for tires in cold weather, and it’s also directly translatable to shoes as well,” Pasternak said. “Increased traction in winter conditions is value added, not only for performance footwear brands and segments, but even for casual and lifestyle shoes.”

Casualwear is somewhat new territory for Goodyear, but it’s one the company is making great strides in already. “Goodyear has traditionally been thought of as a work and service brand, so for a long time we concentrated on customers needing industrial type formulations: oil resistance, non-slip, heat and abrasion resistance,” said Pasternak. Now he said, Goodyear sees more lifestyle-centric requests from partner companies: safer outsoles that’s non-slip on ice, low-temperature traction, and durability for athletic shoes.

Listening to client needs and reacting to market demands is key for components companies. “We need to listen carefully to what the customer is expecting from us, and understanding why they need Michelin specifically,” Sartor said. Recently Michelin Soles collaborated with Camper to create a high-durability outsole that offered first-class grip for slippery, wet conditions. Michelin Soles was able to provide options and insight that led to a specially-developed compound that fit the company’s needs perfectly.

In all likelihood, opportunities for auto and footwear to overlap will only grow more plentiful as consumers demand higher performance from their outdoor and casual apparel. Savvy apparel companies will take that as a cue to keep a close eye on the automotive market.