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SLEM: Embrace Technology Before It is Too Late

Will footwear come back to Europe and the U.S. through factories only operated by robots? Will in-store manufacturing of custom-made shoes be the solution for brick and mortar retail? Will consumers 3-D print shoes at home?

SLEM, an international innovation and education institute for footwear, will examine these possibilities and more at the Future of Footwear Manufacturing SLEMinars on April 20-21 at its headquarters in Amsterdam. The two-day conference will focus on smart manufacturing and disruptive manufacturing, and will include demonstrations of machines and technologies for attendees to experience first-hand.

Speakers include FDRA Vice President Andy Polk, NPD Group Sports Industry Analyst Matt Powell, Feetz Co-founder Lucy Beard and representatives from Portland Design, Desma, Cave, SoftWear Ultimaker, JS Shoes, Solemaker and Studio Bitoni.

VAMP readers can receive a 10 percent discount off of admission to both days of the conference by using the discount code: VAMPXSLEM.

VAMP spoke to SLEM creative director and footwear forecaster and consultant Nicoline van Enter about why it is necessary for footwear retailers and brands to consider new methods of footwear manufacturing, which could even be applied to make shoes in stores.

VAMP: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about smart manufacturing?
van Enter: The biggest misconception by far is that smart manufacturing is just a new automated way of footwear production that should mimic or replace current mass-production technologies like injection molding.

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This way of thinking makes people mainly focused on speed and price and on applying current footwear constructions and business models. However, technologies like 3-D printing only make sense if they are used for their unique strengths. Unless you learn to understand what those are and apply them in the best way possible, you will not be able to use these ‘smart’ technologies successfully. If you want to make a product with a 3-D printer, this will influence the entire development and sales process.

You do not start to draw a shoe in 2-D. You must think in 3-D from the start. There might be no distinction between upper and outsole, there are no standard sizes, just made-to-measure solutions and instead of using different materials in several densities, you create different material properties through different structures.

You will also need to think of new business models to make printing viable and feasible. That is why our 3-D printing classes start with 3-D thinking before you even get to learn anything about hardware or software.

VAMP: Does smart manufacturing mean less human labor?
van Enter: We might need less people, but the people we do need will have to have more or different skills. That is also one of the topics when we talk about in-store production at our SLEMinar. If such a system would work, who would oversee the production then? A robot? The person who used to be the shop assistant? The person who used to be the factory manager? Or someone else altogether, maybe a junior designer who works directly with the customer to create bespoke designs. These cannot all be jobs for people with an academic background; instead, we see great opportunities for new kinds of vocational training that focus on innovative, practical kinds of engineering and programming.

VAMP: Some would argue that footwear retailers are playing a game of “catch up” when it comes to adopting technologies that can improve their sales and service. How can retailers overcome this?
van Enter: The lack of knowledge of—and interest in—new technologies among footwear retailers is indeed a serious threat to their survival. Personally, I do not think that many of them suddenly will make the move to 3-D scanning and printing; by now the learning curve has also become too steep for most of them. Instead, we will see tech companies from outside the footwear industry start innovative retail concepts that apply all kinds of disruptive technology in shoes.

Feetz is a good example. Owners Lucy and Nigel Beard both do not have a footwear background, but that worked as an advantage as well. It gave them a fresh perspective and this led them to start their 3-D printed footwear line in a way that really benefits from the specific advantages of the technology, rather than trying to replicate a traditional way of footwear design and manufacturing with a 3-D printer, as we often see footwear companies do.

Another option for traditional footwear retailers could be to team up with tech companies that can implement and operate these new digital customization services for them. In that case, the retailers provide the location and the customers, while their technology partners handle the scanning and printing and/or eventually train the retailers to do it themselves, in return for a licensing fee, for instance.

VAMP: Where is there the most interest?
van Enter: There is interest in these new technologies from all angles of the footwear business; that is why we are organizing an international conference about new footwear manufacturing technologies. Participants range from sports brands like New Balance, to casual companies like Timberland, comfort brands like Ecco and even designer labels like Alexander Wang. At SLEM we also do consulting for companies and currently we are investigating in-store production opportunities for a big casual brand as well as a well-known specialist in high heels.

Yet I expect that the first “retailers” to actively apply technologies like 3-D scanning and printing on a larger scale will be orthopedic footwear brands. They have the biggest advantages of 3-D printing, whilst they can also handle the higher prices and longer lead times that these technologies will still require in the beginning. They will also lead to new ways of offering orthopedic footwear that looks more attractive.

We also expect to see entirely new business models that could take orthopedic footwear out of the medical realm and out of the tight grip of health insurance companies, making orthopedic shoes more affordable for a much larger audience. This is not only interesting for the U.S. and Europe; we especially see great opportunities in Asia, since there is a great need for orthopedic footwear there, but they lack the infrastructure of orthopedic shoemakers and podiatrists that other parts of the world have. You can see this as a problem, but also as an opportunity to make a fresh start.

VAMP: Technology changes the way footwear looks and feels. Will the consumer to adjust?
van Enter: The influx of technology will always change how a product looks and feels and consumers are already adapting without even realizing. For instance, look at the popularity of Flyknit uppers. What started as a new idea for sports shoes is now being applied in all kinds of footwear, yet most people do not even realize that the high level of automation is the main reason footwear companies are so interested in using knits in the first place. You can have a factory full of knitting machines but with only a handful of people to look after it. Traditional constructions require way more human labor.

Yet rather than asking if consumers will be able to adapt to new looks, we think it could be more interesting to think the opposite way, because of new developments like 4-D printing and biotechnology, future materials will be adapting to the consumer instead of the other way around.