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How World’s Smallest Shoe Factory Changes the Supply Chain Conversation

KEEN’s UNEEKBOT, the “world’s smallest shoe factory,” wants to evolve how the industry thinks about supply chain and manufacturing in footwear.

Robotics, especially in the apparel and footwear industries, is often viewed with caution and concern. It threatens to upend how garments are manufactured and to put thousands of workers in emerging countries out of life-changing jobs. However, on the flip side, robots can tackle the tiring and repetitive tasks without the wear and tear on human employees.

And while it’s true that many of the robotics advancements coming to fashion are focused on large-scale operations and automation, one plucky little startup is changing the idea of what robotics is and what it can do for the industry.

Enter the UNEEKBOT, a novel approach to the usual goods-producing bot that takes a sustainable approach to making shoes, from the products it actually makes to how it makes them. It’s the brainchild of outdoor-oriented footwear brand KEEN, based in Portland, Ore., which is applying its “business unusual” mantra to eco-friendly shoes and on-demand production.

It all started with the debut of KEEN’s UNEEK line of shoes and sandals a few years ago. To say the footwear is eye-catching is an understatement; they’re fashioned from rubber for the soles and cord manipulated into a sort of lace-up design that offers flexibility and comfort by ameliorating some of the common ways that footwear strains the foot’s pressure points.

The shoes have taken off, thanks largely to their launch in Japan and ensuing popularity with the fashion-fearless street-style crowd there. Now, KEEN is taking the UNEEKBOT on a U.S. tour, evangelizing this alternative view toward outfitting feet and the low-impact high tech that makes it possible.

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KEEN created UNEEKBOT as a way to push its funky, sustainable UNEEK shoe line forward and expand its scope. A highly portable device, UNEEKBOT is highly portable, living in a trailer for its voyage around the country, and according to a SNEWS article, uses solar power and batteries sourced from partner Goal Zero to advancement its mission of ensuring it runs solely on renewable electricity as well air pressure, limiting its environmental impact. The UNEEKBOT can finish a pair of shoes in just a half hour, down from the one-pair-per-day capability when the bot first launched two years ago.

According to SNEWS, KEEN’s UNEEKBOT is planning to make or has already made appearances at the West Coast offices of many of the usual suspects in footwear and tech, from Amazon and Zappos to Google and REI. The bot is also getting some face time at four Southern California universities as KEEN looks to advance its internship program and show students how they can explore entrepreneurial projects and opportunities even within the four walls of a large company, according to SNEWS.

Given that younger consumers are embracing experiences more so than simply products these days, UNEEKBOT very well could be hitting on a sweet spot in experiential retail: stroll up to the bot’s current pop-up location, place an order and receive a brand-spanking-new pair of custom kicks in the time it takes to cook a weeknight dinner. And the personalized, somewhat “slow fashion” made-for-me aspect could appeal to consumers rejecting the mass-produced status quo.

Could a robot help a brand create an intimate experience for customers? Sounds like robotics doesn’t have to be big and scary, after all, and if you ask KEEN, it could help to increase domestic footwear production—albeit on a small scale.