Manufacturers flee China for local robots

The hottest items on this year’s holiday list are hoverboards and Stan Smith sneakers. Unfortunately, hoverboards are combusting in troves, which leaves us with the all white Adidas sneakers. Stan Smiths were first introduced in 1971 when the tennis player achieved #1 spot in the sport, and reintroduced with celebrity fanfare in 2014.  Now, Adidas can’t make them fast enough…

addias robot

To solve this issue, a German factory operated largely by robots will make its first 500 pairs of running shoes for Adidas early next year as the sportswear company seeks to cut labor costs and speed up delivery to fashion-conscious consumers.

Founded by German cobbler Adi Dassler in 1949, Adidas has shifted most of its production from Europe to Asia and relies on more than 1 million workers in contract factories, particularly in China and Vietnam. But Adidas now wants to bring production back closer to its major markets to meet demands for faster delivery of new styles and to counter rising wages in Asia and higher shipping costs.

The new “Speedfactory” in the southern town of Ansbach near its Bavarian headquarters will start production in the first half of 2016 of a robot-made running shoe that combines a machine-knitted upper and springy “Boost” sole made from a bubble-filled polyurethane foam developed by BASF.

“An automated, decentralized and flexible manufacturing process… opens doors for us to be much closer to the market and to where our consumer is,” said Chief Executive Herbert Hainer.

Larger rival Nike is also investing heavily in new manufacturing methods. But it has not yet put a date on when it expects that to result in more U.S.-based production. Adidas plans high volume production in the near future and will establish a global network of similar factories, although it expects them to complement existing suppliers rather than replace them as it seeks to keep growing fast.

“This is on top. It is a separate business model,” Gerd Manz, head of technology innovation at Adidas, told journalists.

Adidas currently makes about 600 million pairs of shoes and items of clothing and accessories a year. It plans to grow sales by almost half again by 2020. The new factory will still use humans for parts of the assembly process, around 10 people will be on the ground for testing purposes during the pilot phase, but Adidas is working towards full automation. Adidas is also seeking to find ways to remove machine tools from the manufacturing process as they can take weeks to prepare. It has already used 3-D printing to create futuristic-looking soles made from webs of criss-crossed fibers (see below).

Adidas signed a deal in October with German engineering group Manz to develop new automated production technology and work on full digitalization, from design to manufacturing.  Adidas’s other partners in the project include Johnson Controls, robotic assembly expert KSL Keilmann and scientists from the Technical University of Munich and the University of Aachen.

Johnson Controls is a global player and leading supplier in the automotive industry. KSL Keilmann are experts in constructing individual robotic assembly solutions and fortiss is an institute associated with the Technical University of Munich with the mandate to facilitate research and technology transfer in software-intensive systems and services. ITA RWTH is the institute of textile technology of the University of Aachen (Germany), specialised in developing new textile machines and processes. And, last but not least, the adidas Group’s project team consisting of experts from the adidas Innovation, Global IT Innovation and Sourcing teams.

Interestingly, the German government comes into play as Speedfactory fits perfectly into their High-Tech Strategy 2020, the national plan to take the country to the next level in terms of innovation and technology. The High-Tech Strategy was developed to set up a broad and successful basis in science, research, technology and innovation, in order to contribute to improving people’s lives as well as helping secure prosperity and qualified jobs in Germany.

First launched in 2006, the national approach evolved into High-Tech Strategy 2020, which today comprises five fields of action: climate/energy, health/nutrition, mobility, security and communication. This plan involves a complex and well thought-out structure and helps focusing the country’s research and innovation activities on ten selected future-oriented projects, all of them pursuing certain objectives related to scientific and technological developments over a period of ten to fifteen years. 

First manufacturing jobs went to China, now companies are returning home replacing mass production with robots. Naysayers will yell doom and gloom, but human evolution demands that we rise in our productivity and creativity and not become rote machines…

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