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Manufacturing on Demand is the Future of Retail

In a world where almost everything is available on demand, it doesn’t require a great stretch of the imagination to see a day when consumers can simply 3-D print whatever they need or want.

Michael Fox, co-founder and chief executive officer of 6-year-old custom footwear company Shoes of Prey, went so far Wednesday as to declare on-demand manufacturing and infinite SKUs the future of retail.

A bold statement, considering he was addressing a room full of industry insiders at the American Apparel and Footwear Association’s (AAFA) annual executive summit in Washington, D.C.

“The change that’s coming to our industry will likely be quite similar to what happened in the book and music industries,” he continued, asking the audience to cast their minds back to what happened to both of those sectors when Amazon and Napster stepped up to the plate. “Books and music are really the canaries in the coalmine of what’s going to happen over the coming years.”

But with value destruction comes the potential for value creation and Fox said there’s a lot of things apparel and footwear companies can and should take advantage of now to help them survive and thrive.

For Shoes of Prey, that meant opening a 43,000-square-foot factory in China in December 2014, in order to have more control over the quality of the product, as well as the ability to innovate its manufacturing processes and easily expand its range.

“From a manufacturing point of view, [customization] is quite a challenge because it means we’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of patterns at any one time, because if you change just one material on one panel of the shoe it will change the pattern entirely,” Mike Knapp, co-founder and chief technology officer, explained. “We realized that in order to scale and to make thousands of pairs of shoes a day we’d have to build our own factory so we’ve done that.”

Fox added, “If we want to become very good at manufacturing on demand, we have to adapt the manufacturing processes used to mass produce shoes and apply that to producing shoes one at a time.”

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In addition to scaling capacity in China, the company eventually wants to have factories in all the markets where it retails, which will improve shipping times. According to the Shoes of Prey website, production times currently range between two and five weeks, depending on demand, but an express option is available for an extra fee, meaning an order could arrive within 14 business days.

“We still have a lot more to do on the manufacturing side,” Fox noted, adding that the company is focused on improving production and growing the brand. “In the future, as our manufacturing capability grows, it might make sense to become more of a platform like Amazon is and start doing manufacturing on-demand for other companies.”