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Shoes Set to Get Smarter as New Technologies Digitize Footwear Design

The fashion industry is undergoing its digital makeover, and footwear production in particular seems to be advancing faster than anything else.

Consumers are already—or will very soon be—shopping shoes differently, like via text with a chatbot or by asking Amazon’s Alexa to buy it for them. They might even walk into product-less stores like Nordstrom Local where they can’t purchase clothes or shoes, but they can visit with a personal stylist while sipping on a fresh cold-pressed juice.

And if these new technologies are driving more digitized purchasing, production can’t continue to exist on an analog model and expect to keep up.

That was the message at a panel on making smarter shoes at FN Platform Monday, where talk centered largely on 3-D everything.

The demand for speed to market is driving the way the industry operates, and footwear brands and manufacturers really can’t afford not to embrace 3-D—especially where sampling is concerned.

Designing a shoe and developing a physical sample can take anywhere from 12-24 weeks and cost upward of $2,000. Making that same shoe using 3-D design and 3-D printing it, on the other hand, takes 2-4 days to produce and costs closer to $300.

“3-D design and development is now a nonstop 24-hour process,” said Brion Carroll, vice president of global business development for the retail business unit of PTC, a software solutions provider.

Most companies looking to stay afloat in this rapidly shifting landscape have swapped their Excel spreadsheets for things like product lifecycle management (PLM) systems and are using them to link their supply chains for more efficient and effective development.

But what this enables them to do, apart from better organizing their business, is to evaluate manufacturability during the design process. They can generate models of the shoes, add product information from their PLM libraries and then look at solutions for improving cost and time to make it. From there, design reviews can be done using augmented reality to make adjustments to things like toe spring and heel elevation.

While that all sounds good and future-facing, other parts of the design and development process have been stuck in the Dark Ages.

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“Today, when we talk about design and development, we’re still going to material shows,” Andy Polk, senior vice president for the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA), said. “We’re still managing materials by talking over email or talking to suppliers.”

To bring that process up to date, FDRA, in partnership with PTC and Substance, is making what happens at material shows happen online. And it’s called Material Exchange.

The one-stop database for material sourcing, compliance, design and development, is expected to overhaul how shoes move from concept to consumer.

“It’s a repository where suppliers upload all their materials to one place and anyone in the industry can search the entire database,” Polk explained.

In the Material Exchange platform, which is headed into beta and expected to launch commercially in June, users can review an exceptionally wide range of footwear fabrics, see costs and country of origin, choose by color, weight, sheen and the like, and even see how the fabric drapes over a shoe to understand how it might interact with their product. Compliance certificates are also on hand for the suppliers providing all the materials in the database, and the platform can push 3-D materials into CAD tools to enable real-time visualization of material color combinations on the user’s own design.

Once a user finds a material they’re interested in on Material Exchange, they can use the database to email the supplier to find out whether the quantity they need is in stock.

“Today, you find the material you like from your supplier and physically, manually type in all those specs,” Polk said. “What we’re trying to do is create better communications among brands and suppliers.”

For suppliers concerned about over-communication, one supplier won’t be able to see another’s data, so competitors won’t be privy to what they’re working on and what they’re charging for it.

When it comes to price, the platform isn’t meant to be cost prohibitive as many innovative new technologies are. Polk said one user will be able to purchase access for between $1,000 and $1,500 for a year-long license.

Companies like Caleres, Wolverine, Target and Aldo are already on board to carry Material Exchange forward as a smarter source for footwear production, requiring their suppliers to upload all of their available materials. Talks are also ongoing with Nike, which has expressed interest in the platform, according to Polk.

“The Material Exchange is going to be that next big thing that’s going to help our industry reduce cost,” Polk said.