In retailers’ hot pursuit for that magic trick to entice consumers on a mass scale, 3D printing has more or less come and gone as a fad, but to sneaker giant Adidas, mass-market 3D printed products may soon be a reality with sizable retail promise.
By the end of this year, Adidas is not only planning to introduce 100,000 pairs of shoes with their plastic midsoles made via a new 3D technology created by Silicon Valley startup Carbon, it’s also making moves to ramp up that production eventually to millions in the coming years, said James Carnes, vice president of strategy creation for Adidas’s namesake brand.
“We have a really aggressive plan to scale this,” Carnes said in an interview. “We are scaling a production. The plan will put us as the (world’s) biggest producer of 3D printed products.”
For instance, by Q3 alone, Adidas will have access to enough printers from Carbon that will allow it to make one million pairs of 3D printed sneakers, Joseph DeSimone, CEO and cofounder of Carbon, told me.
Adidas declined to say when and where it will drop the rest of the 100,000 pairs this year after its Futurecraft 4D—the first commercial release of those new 3D shoes at $300 a pop in select stores in New York—sold out in January. As an indicator of potential demand, some of those shoes have commanded a healthy premium and been resold for several times their original price at sneaker auction site StockX.
Want another idea of just how big Adidas envisions this new 3D business could be? Carnes compared its potential to Adidas’s popular Boost cushioning shoe franchise. Introduced in 2013 with 100,000 pairs made also in the first year, the Boost shoe line has expanded to a production of over 50 million pairs a year. That’s over 10% of the 400 million pairs Adidas makes each year, Carnes said.
“We are talking about starting small,” he said. While the new 3D shoe’s price tag isn’t any demand deterrent thanks to a healthy appetite for Adidas’s premium performance products, Carnes said Adidas may be able to cut the shoe price once production volume reaches a certain mass level.
It also isn’t just a vanity sales project. The new 3D business will be profitable by the time volume hits 100,000 pairs this year, Carnes said.
On-Demand Shoes Personalized To You?
What’s at stake? At a time when retailers and brands fight to sell products that meet consumers’ individual needs, shorten the so-called product cycle time, and create an “on-demand” model to make merchandise close to when there’s demand to reduce excess inventory risk, Carnes said Carbon’s technology will help Adidas accomplish all of those.
How? Carnes, a 22-year Adidas veteran, described Carbon’s technology as “night and day” from the traditional 3D printing process that requires injection-molding and uses laser to harden powder polymer, a process he described could be “messy.” Adidas is no stranger to 3D printing and has used it to make prototype shoes for some 16 years, but various forms of traditional 3D printing technology could never have been applied for mass production because of the time and cost it would have involved, Carnes said.
In contrast, Carbon’s “Digital Light Synthesis” technology uses light and oxygen to make plastic objects like the sneaker midsoles from a pool of resin, without either any messy waste or need for injection molding. Any design can be tweaked—and customized—and fed to be printed through a cloud-based software model. That means Adidas can eventually also experiment with scanning consumers’ feet in stores and gathering data like their gait and stride for personalized shoes. The new printing process is also “100 times faster” than that of traditional 3D shoe printing, Carnes said.
“That’s how retail will be shaped in future” with this experience at a store, he said. You get “some sort of physical assessment, whether it’s your fit or movement specifications, that translates to your actual needs. Somebody with the same size will run or walk differently (from you). It’s completely personal to you.”
Rewriting Manufacturing Map
The new 3D printing process doesn’t just have the edge over traditional 3D printing. It may also have the potential to reshape where Adidas makes products.
For instance, it took just 11 months from the time Adidas and Carbon first met before Futurecraft 4D’s January release. In comparison, a pair of sneakers via normal factory production could take 15 to 18 months alone from design to their arrival in stores, Carnes said, adding that the costly steel-molding required for prototypes alone could consume eight months of that cycle time.
“We are in an industry driven by newness,” he said. With this new 3D technology, “we could create products locally and cut down on shipping time. In terms of cost, we don’t have to make full set of molds.”
A case in point, while Adidas still makes most of its shoes in Asia, the Futurecraft 4D shoes unveiled in New York came out of a factory about an hour away from Adidas’s Herzogenaurach, Germany headquarters. The rest of the 100,000 pairs this year will come from either that factory or Carbon’s Silicon Valley office, Adidas said.
Adidas is putting its money where its mouth is. It’s one of the key investors behind Carbon and has a top executive on Carbon’s board. It also has an exclusive contract to use the startup’s technology in the sports industry, potentially giving it a leg up on rivals including Nike and Under Amour, both of which, to be sure, have their own 3D initiatives also.
Carbon has “a technology that no one uses,” Carnes said. “What they have done is revolutionary.”
Other big investors behind Carbon look to back up what Adidas sees in Carbon. Founded in 2013, Carbon, which also makes other 3D plastic-based products including parts for Vitamix juice blenders, has raised $420 million from a who’s who list of investors, from Sequoia Capital and Google Ventures to other Adidas-like “strategic” investors that also include industrial giant GE, carmaker BMW and pharmaceutical and consumer products company Johnson & Johnson.
At a recent 3D event hosted by GE in New York, Adidas’s Futurecraft 4D was on display alongside a wide array of things from 3D printed hip and knee replacements to GE’s own 3D printed jet engine and power drill parts.
“We are bringing plastic based 3D printing to scale,” Carbon’s DeSimone told me, adding an IPO is a consideration for Carbon, valued at $1.7 billion. “Majority of the shoes made so far have been for standard size. We are beginning to scale up the shoe. It’s mass customization at scale.”