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The Shoe of the Future May be Born Right in a Retail Store

Bots have already started making their way into factories, no matter how reluctant the industry may be to fully embrace them, but now they may be finding their way into retail stores, too.

Though it has taken the footwear sector quite some time to evolve from cobblers to the mass production that’s existed in much the same manner for years, innovation is now rampant as companies look to cater to new consumer demands, and deliver on a product that does more.

And those leading the game are bringing in bots to help them do it.

The new paradigm for robots, however, won’t be one that usurps workers—both will be working in conjunction.

“Robots are not the kind of machines and automation systems they used to be in the past,” said Sergio Dulio, head of research and innovation for AtomLab, at the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America’s (FDRA) Footwear Sourcing and Innovation Summit in New York City Tuesday. “This calls for a completely new generation of robots, called ‘cobots.’”

Cobots, or collaborative robots, Dulio said, will share the same space with workers, and data-focused automated operations with help to complete the flow of digital data that starts in the design process and flows down to the manufacturing process. Augmented reality will step in as a user interface to ease the cutting process, and machines will be capable of communicating stats on what they’re doing and even retrieving data as needed.

“You will see more and more of these machines with more advanced interfaces…to remove all the inefficient, time consuming, highly labor-intensive operations,” Dulio said.

The one thing companies should consider when deciding to enlist the aid of robots in their manufacturing operations, however, is how the bot can better help them deliver on the demands of their business.

“It should be that the robot adjusts to the manufacturing process rather than vice versa,” Dulio said. “The key here is placing robots where non high value-added operations exist.”

But beyond the factory, innovators are enlisting robots to interface with consumers—both as an experiential draw and as a way to deliver on customization and speed at the same time.

As part of a project to determine whether the future will see shoe stores become mini factories, AtomLab, which develops innovative technologies and projects for new methods of production, along with ELSE Corp and ShoeMaster, have developed RoboShop. The shop-factory of the future makes the simultaneous experience of buying and personalization possible.

RoboShop would allow consumers to see the production of the shoes they purchased made live in store.

Consumers can have their feet scanned by a 3-D scanner to capture biometric data that would determine their best size and fit, and then they can customize shoe models, selecting materials and colors and then watching the production as it happens before them. Dulio said the project was able to produce 40 pairs of shoes in just a couple of days.

It’s custom mass hybrid production, and it may soon be coming to a store near you.

For this future factory/store scenario to happen, Dulio said, “We believe the basic elements are here. It will take some time probably, but not that much in our opinion.”

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