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Q&A: Carbon VP of Operations Luke Kelly on the Future of Footwear

When a footwear innovator like Adidas approaches a company that’s never made shoes, the industry takes notice.

The footwear brand exclusively tapped Carbon Inc., a molecular science meets 3-D manufacturing firm, to take its sneakers to the next level. And what resulted was Adidas’ Futurecraft 4D.

The sneaker uses Carbon’s 3-D midsole to improve shoe performance, and the collaboration may have made a lasting impact on footwear manufacturing.

To find out how, Sourcing Journal caught up with Carbon’s VP of operations, Luke Kelly, to find out how innovation is making way for true, customizable and on-demand mass manufacturing.

SJ: Tell us about the technology Carbon has developed for footwear.
LK: Our technology is called Digital Light Synthesis. At the highest level, we use light and oxygen to set the shape of the parts, and light and oxygen, from a chemistry perspective, work in polar opposites. By using oxygen, we can print very fast, continuously and get amazing properties, so you can print a shoe that lasts hundreds of thousands of cycles without degradation, which hasn’t been possible with 3-D. Then we use light as our chisel to shape the object in all of these new amazing ways that aren’t manufacturable through traditional manufacturing techniques, like injection molding.

SJ: What has the Adidas + Carbon partnership been like?
LK: We were very fortunate in many ways that Adidas had explored all other technologies available on the market before we came along. The biggest thing is they’re a creative driven, athlete performance-driven company and they couldn’t get the performance that they needed, whether in terms of energy return or in terms of lifetime. They’ve shared data that shows their material broke down after 30,000 cycle tests, completely broke down and was not even close to usable, and the standard for traditional material is 100,000 cycles. Our material is able to perform as good or better than any traditional approach, so well over the extended life test, which no other 3-D product is able to do.

SJ: How much does this technology speed up the production process for Adidas?
LK: It’s a lot faster than injection molding. Injection molding from an actual shop perspective is a very fast, very scalable process. Where we’re much faster is the introduction of the technology in cycle time. Roughly, for most shoe companies, if they are doing an entirely new shoe line, it’s an 18-month cycle from start to end when you get a new shoe. We did the first version in about six months. If you rethink the supply chain, the thing that’s getting exciting is how quickly you can change to adapt pace and think about new customization and personalization with a flex manufacturing tool. This is about new design, new performance and new business models, because you can produce on-demand, you can change your option mix in real time. You can do local for local production.

SJ: Let’s talk costs—can it save companies money?
LK: It’s really about creating a design that can be printed without supports, our software team worked extraordinarily closely with their design team, to develop new tools that the designers can use so they can take into account the printability and supportless structures, and make sure that we had designs that can be printed quickly and efficiently. That’s really important to being able to get to hundreds of thousands—and into the millions of pairs—cost effectively. We are able to leverage the global chemical supply chain and we work with some of the best large volume chemical companies in the world to make sure we have cost effective, scalable technology and product quality.

SJ: What will 4-D technology really mean for the footwear industry?
LK: The ambitions are almost limitless in terms of the approach. From a business model perspective and an economics perspective, there’s so many ways to expand margins beyond just making the shoes cheaper, which has been the industry paradigm for 60 years. When you have products that perform noticeably better, you can capture higher prices potentially, you can take share from other people in the marketplace. But then on the total opposite side, you have much less waste in terms of inventory, you have fewer markdowns because you are making such a distinct product and, overtime, a customized product. You are able to do things like local for local production and adjust to a local pace much, much faster than you can when you are shipping shoes from Asia on the ocean for six weeks. The supply chain innovation that’s going to be enabled by true 3-D manufacturing is probably the thing that I’m most excited about and it’s probably the thing that will most impact not only footwear, but just about every industry as they increasingly adopt on-demand digital manufacturing.

SJ: And how about scale?
LK: We are really fortunate by our approach, which is quite a bit different than other 3-D technologies that we use liquid resins and our materials are close cousins to some of the highest volume, injection molded materials in the world, so things like polyurethanes and epoxies that are made in huge reactors and shipped in railcars around the world. We’re able to take advantage of that huge capital investment that many of the large chemical companies have already made and leverage those resources and get them to produce for us.

SJ: What’s next for Carbon + Adidas?
LK: We are scaling up production, we’re working very closely together to ramp up their supply base around the world. We’ve talked pretty broadly about our ambitions to ramp up the pairs as quickly as possible and expand into other product lines and other product categories within the company.

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