3D printing technology spearheads Adidas’s innovation strategy

Two-and-a-half years after introducing the Futurecraft 3D shoes, Adidas has reached a new milestone in the development of its 3D-printing technology. It's with the launch of its latest trainer model, the Alphaedge 4D, available from 1st June, in a limited edition priced at €300, at selected specialist retailers in Europe. Adidas expects to produce 100,000 units of the Alphaedge 4D by 2019.


James Carnes, Vice-President Global Brand Strategy at Adidas, with the Alphaedge 4D shoe

“Previously, with the Futurecraft 3D, we worked on much smaller production runs, of a few thousands of pairs,” said James Carnes, Adidas’s Vice-President Global Brand Strategy, who leads the German group’s product innovation drive.

“We have truly scaled up with the Alphaedge 4D. It will be the first shoe in the world made with 3D printing technology to reach this level of industrialisation,” he added.

To attain this milestone, Adidas relied on a new technology partner, Californian company Carbon. Founded in 2013, Carbon has developed 3D printers that use a liquid mix of resin and polyurethane.

“The industry has been using 3D printing since 1984, to manufacture prototypes. It involved huge machines that took a very long time to produce a model, which was then used to create the moulds for mass production," explained Carnes.

"The process used a powder which solidified, but the end result was quite rough. Ever since the early 2000s, everybody has tried to industrialise 3D printing. It’s what we began to do with the Futurecraft shoe. Once we discovered how Carbon went about it though, we could really make a difference.

"Previously, it took us between two and three hours to produce a sole, but now its takes us less than an hour. And a sole would cost between $200 and $300. I think that, within five to seven years, thanks to this technology the cost will be the same as that of a [traditional] Boost sole," he added.

A Carbon 3D printer on display at the new Adidas France headquarters in Strasbourg - FashionNetwork/OG

Adidas is one of Carbon’s investor partners. Not surprisingly, Carbon not only sells Adidas the methodology, the machines and the software to exploit its technology, it also recently installed some of its printers at Adidas’s two SpeedFactory manufacturing sites, in Germany and in Atlanta, USA.

In total, about fifty machines are expected to be deployed in the near future.

“We aren’t yet at a stage where we can produce all our shoes with this technology,” said James Carnes, smiling. “But it speeds up the development process. In the past, it could take between 15 and 18 months, instead it took us 11 months. To develop this sole, we compiled the running data we have been storing for years, from the feed-back we receive from athletes and consumers,” he added.

The Alphaedge 4D is built to offer high-level cushioning and foot support. Adidas is also exploiting this technology to create other types of shoe: it is working on lifestyle models, and the next launch will feature a basketball shoe.

According to Carnes, the technology has great potential: “To offer a truly additional service to our customers, the data we have been compiling for years and the information we collect from athletes must be linked up with personal information. Possibly via our customers’ smartphones, which can track running speed and stride length. At some stage, this will allow us to tell runners that, as they improve their abilities and their performance, they may need a new model, with a sole that’s adapted to their way of running.”

Adidas, like the sport industry as a whole, is still at an early stage in this kind of customisation, but it is clearly relying on 3D printing to consolidate its position as a leading sport and lifestyle brand.


The sole of the Alphaedge4D shoe is made with a liquid which is air and light-dried -Adidas

“I have been with Adidas for more than 20 years. I started as a designer, before graduating to projects like this,” said Carnes.

“There was more innovation in the last three years than in the ten previous ones. For us, this is a priority project. There is a dedicated team working on this in Portland, USA, to which we have recently added another ten people. We have very specific requirements: we need to hire engineers who are technology experts, but who also have design expertise and a creative mindset. This project isn’t the only one we’re working on. It’s the most important one, but we balance out our investments.”

All these technologies, designed to allow Adidas to achieve a significant competitive advantage, are deployed at the still top-secret SpeedFactory production sites. New assembly methods, glue-free manufacturing and more -- through these innovative production methods, for which Adidas collaborates extensively with start-ups and creatives outside the group -- the German sports brand wants to address the issue of sustainability.

“We set ourselves a series of milestones,” said Carnes. “The first stage is the adoption of a recycling culture. The second stage is to incorporate [sustainability] issues at the start of the product development process. And the third stage is to use materials that aren’t simply recyclable, but bio-degradable. In many countries, a proper waste treatment industry doesn’t exist, so we must think ahead,” he concluded.

Behind the launch of the Alphaedge4D, there is the full power of the Adidas group’s innovation strategy, which has been significantly amped up in the last few years.

Translated by Nicola Mira

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