That was the general message of an interesting two-day conference held in April in Waalwijk, Netherlands. It was the last conference on footwear technology organized by SLEM, the Dutch educational institution, before the recent departure of its founder and head, Nicoline van Enter. She is now pursuing her visionary mission through her own company, The Footwearists, organizing lectures, consulting and training professionals in the sneaker industry.

The focus of the conference was on new and possibly disruptive technologies, in both shoemaking and retailing. It was attended by high-level delegates from companies such as Decathlon, Ecco and Timberland. It was also attended by Penny Leese, an experienced footwear designer and journalist who follows new technical developments very closely (more about her in the classified ads section at the end of this issue). Soon after the conference, she sent us a long and comprehensive report, which we are only running now for various reasons. After all, it's normal to look at the future at the beginning of a new year.

There was a lot of discussion at the conference about 3D printing of outsoles and midsoles as well as the manufacture of knitted uppers, which have started to be adopted by several athletic footwear brands covered in our sister publication, Sporting Goods Intelligence Europe. Many delegates spoke about the 4th Industrial revolution (Industry 4.0), with its intense use of automation and smarter data exchange in manufacturing technologies. Using cyber-physical systems, the “Internet of things,” cloud computing and cognitive computing, Industry 4.0 is essentially intended to create “smart factories” with a modular structure where “cyber-physical” systems monitor physical processes, create a virtual copy of the physical world and make decentralized decisions.

Van Enter opened the conference with a talk about reshoring. She referred to companies like Adidas opening factories in Germany, or Nike in the U.S., and comparing that with the cost and environmental consequences of overseas sourcing. Comparing wage rates in different footwear production countries shows that it may be is not so cost-effective to take production back to Europe, even with a lot of automation. There are other benefits, however, in terms of inventories, service levels, customization and smaller ecological footprints.

Automation and reduced labor costs are interesting for everyone. Chinese manufacturers are looking to reducing labor costs, too. They are beginning to explore the use of robots, and they are moving offshore. They have already opened factories in Ethiopia to reduce labor costs.

The pace of change is accelerating, and the Chinese are very fast at adapting to new circumstances, at adopting new technologies and new ways of working. Changes are taking place more quickly also in fashion. Matt Powell, the American sports shoe analyst from the NPD Group, noted that sneaker trends are changing quickly. While it used to take ten years for new trends to get traction, they have become established after only three years or so. Still, the 3-year fashion cycle is no longer working, he said, as market changes are occurring faster and faster. It now takes 18 months from concept to retail, and the process is accelerating.

On the other hand, the U.S. is no longer the world leader in sports and sneaker trends, said Powell. Five years ago, the trends used to start mainly there, but now the ideas come from all over the world, from Tokyo to a little town in the Netherlands. Also, technological progress is affecting new product development and lifestyles like never before. About 80 percent of the American people have a smartphone, and connected devices such as wrist fitness trackers are popular there. According to Powell, inside five years we will all be wearing these smart devices as they become better, lighter and easier to use.

3D printing-------------------------------------------------------

The conference gave far more than just an introduction to the new technology. Most of the people attending it were already extremely knowledgeable about 3D printing, including officials from leading companies such as DESMA Footwear Automation and Hewlett Packard.

3D printing is used to make entire shoes or insoles, and it is most preferable for outsoles. There are many different methods of 3D printing, from adding layers of powder (which need to be cleaned up afterwards) to heated filaments built up layer by layer. The latter method is the one used by Ultimaker, especially to make outsoles. Various coils of the filament materials are available from different suppliers for this type of 3D printing: soles can be soft and flexible, while decorations can be made with a harder material. BioInspiration makes environmentally friendly coils. It claims to have developed the world's first flexible 3D printing filament from compostable raw materials including wood, bio resin, and fibers.

Although the technology was at the forefront, many delegates questioned how much of this new 3D printing could be used in mass customization. Many mentioned the fact that the much hyped 3D printed outsoles from “Adidas Futurecraft carbon 3D” and the 3D midsoles of Adidas and Nike are really not time- or cost-effective because of the currently slow rate of printing. However, as printer prices are dropping dramatically, things are changing. One possible solution is, rather than buying a single very large and expensive printer, to have rows and batteries of small printers in a line. So the production is moving from a circular system to a linear one. This is already happening in some new small factories, as it is easier then to move shoes between each operation when the process is linear. Fewer employees are needed, too.

Powell questioned the relative production cost and the environmental impact of some of the new technologies. He said that resin-printed soles like those of Adidas are not particularly environmentally friendly as the bath that they come out of cannot be reused and contains toxins.

As Christian Decker of Desma pointed out, 3D printing can eliminate the cost of metal sole molds. Today, plastic molds cost between €2,000 and €6,000, but in about five years the cost should go down to €500 per pair because one part of the supply chain has been cut out. Desma has a collaboration with HP for a dynamic 3D scanner and a micro-pouring device that can make one 3-density outsole within one hour. It can combine different materials with different degrees of thickness and hardness, for example a more rigid mid-part for torsion, a flexible fore-part and a component with more rebound at the heel.

Naturally, 3D printing is also an ideal solution for customizing orthotics. RSScan makes “Phits,” which are 3D scanned functional orthotics for Olympic athletes. The new solution is based on a pressure 3D scan where you can see the skeleton inside a shoe, the loading, the torsion and the midfoot. The operator can design the 3D printed insole, where the left and right part can be different depending on the loading, and it can even have different cell structure. The data can be sent to a printing machine in a different location.

New high-speed printers use an elastomeric material to make a softer or harder heel. The HP Sprout computer does the designing. With a 3D scanning and pressure plate taking the measurements of the foot, a last can be made directly from the scan of the foot. The base of the last can follow the shape of the bottom of the foot anatomically, eliminating the need for a midsole as the outsole can be injected onto the upper.

Knitted uppers ---------------------------------------------

Soft unstructured and comfortable sneakers with knitted uppers like Nike's Flyknit or Adidas' Yeezy Boost have become incredibly influential. Making a knitted shoe with a sock construction is faster than traditional methods, since there is less stitching and handling needed. There is also no cutting, and thus no waste. It takes 30 to 60 minutes to make a pair of them, with factories using some 1,500 individual machines in a single workshop. However, while a traditionally made pair of sneakers might cost $15, the comparative cost for a knitted pair is $12-13.

Xiaoxi Shi, a Chinese member of the 2-LA design studio from Southern California, presented his “circular-knitted” driving moccasins. He worked with local experts on circular knitting machines in China, which needed to be reengineered and adjusted over several months to create an almost circular shoe upper, with just a small join under the fore-part. The outsoles are currently cemented into the upper, but later it should be possible to inject them directly. After cementing, the uppers are lasted to give them additional shape. The shoes come in all kinds of colors, including multi-color combinations, but black is the preferred option.

What is interesting about these circular-knitted shoes is the marketing as much as the product. The shoes are sold as half pairs in recycled cardboard tubes. The color code is given at the end of the tube along with the foot size and the letter L or R for left or right. One of the main reasons to choose circular knitting over flat knitting, even though it is much more complicated is the reduction in labor costs and the fact that there is no waste.

A Dutch brand of sneakers, Filling Pieces, wanted to come out with unique knitted uppers, Thijs Verhaar of the Knitwear Lab chose to make them using a flat weft-knitting process because it is more flexible, faster and quicker to change colors and materials, as there is no need to change several filaments each time the color is changed. This method is best suited to short runs, he explained.

New production methods --------------------------

Optimizing the supply chain is a key topic when it comes to new production methods. Sergio Dulio, the well-known technological expert from the Atom Lab, explained how fast technology is moving in today's 4.0 industrial revolution, mention some of the new Atom machinery. “We live in a fast-changing world,” he said. “There is digital transformation in everything. In smart manufacturing, machines talk to each other, using data held in the cloud.” Modern simulation tools save money, he added, noting that they can analyze manufacturing to save time, reduce carbon emissions, etc.

The future shoe factory will be producing intelligent products with RFID tags. Robotics are becoming more advanced, and interestingly, the keenest market for robots right now is China, where shoemakers are trying to cope with rising labor costs.

Robots are also becoming safer, friendlier and better able to work with people. HRC, which stands for Human Robotic Cooperation, means that robots are becoming less intimidating than before. There are no barriers, just a yellow line on the floor; if people get too close to the robots, they slow down, then stop. Prices are coming down for robots, too. Soon they may cost less than €10,000, and some of them work on compressed air, making them more environmentally friendly.

Robots are not going to take over from humans totally. People will still have a role, as added value and operators' skills will remain important factors of competitiveness, but the structure of the supply chain will change. In traditional manufacturing, a product was ordered in a shop and then manufactured by workers and sent to the store. Now a machine takes an order, cuts the components, tags them, then assembles the finish product and sends it out.

Factories and production lines will get smaller. Strobel uppers can now be made in a space of only 60 square meters, which is not so far from the size of a shop. Production will start getting more decentralized, moving closer to the customers.

Retail -----------------------------------------------------------------

Millennials want personal attention and shoes that fit. When foot scanning is combined with shoe scanning, the customer can get a much better fit very fast. The combination has been accomplished by SafeSize, a company that uses Intel-equipped cameras that can scan the foot (length, girth, instep, etc.) in all directions in a matter of seconds. The picture of the scanned foot comes up on the screen, with measurements shown. The system can also analyze gait.

The shoe measurements are used to recommend shoes to the customer that fit and that the retailer has in stock. The shoes are all measured and analyzed before being put on sale. They are filled with a material that responds to the pressure of a foot, so that the shoe can be scanned precisely for internal measurements. The customer's feet can then be matched up to the shoes. The system works with algorithms, so when the customers try out the shoes, they can also give feedback about the fitting in order to improve the system's database. The system can be used for adults as well as kids. Its growth prediction algorithms can calculate when children will need new shoes and even advise customers when to come in again.

The system is used by Torfs and by retailers like Humanic in Austria. An early version of the system, the so-called “Avatar,” was described in a previous issue of Shoe Intelligence (Vol. 16 N° 21+22 of Nov. 22, 2014). It is currently used by other retailers in Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and other countries. Right now, XXL, a fast-growing Norwegian sporting goods retail chain, is conducting a trial in its first two Austrian shops to see if it should expand the system to its stores in the Nordic countries.

Christian Decker, general manager of Desma Footwear Automation, suggested during the SLEM conference that robots may be used in the shoe shops in the future. With production units getting smaller, there will be more tailor-made items and mass customization will become possible. Customers will have more influence on product development, leading to more variations in the products. They are also looking for more experiential shopping. Shopping malls in the U.S. are dying, but Walt Disney-type “Produtainment” locations, like the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory theme park that looks like a factory, are still highly frequented.

In the old days, the shoe manufacturer made a product that he stocked and sold. Today, consumers are asking for a product to be made especially for them – so why not bring production back into the shops?

This is exactly what Lucy Beard of Feetz in the U.S. has been doing. She makes made-to-measure knitted shoes with 3D-printed soles in the shop, in any color or size, and possibly different for the left and right foot. The customer's feet are scanned and the shoes are made while they wait, or have a coffee. There is no waste or use of water in the manufacturing process, so the product is sustainable. And when the shoes are finished with, her company recycles them.

We already covered Feetz' original presentation of the process at SLEM's first conference on new materials and technologies for shoe production in December 2014 (Shoe Intelligence Vol. 17, N° 2+3 of Feb. 3, 2015). The system was adopted a few months later by DSW, the big American shoe retail chain, in some of its stores.

The pace of technological innovation around retailing – especially omni-channel retailing – is quickening. We should also mention here the use of beacons to track the smartphones of customers enrolled in a loyalty program and the related data analytics, or the in-store virtual reality experience presented by Else Corp. at theMicam in Milan last September, with the cooperation of Atom Lab (Shoe Intelligence – Vol. 19 n°19+20 of Oct. 24, 2017).

Matt Powell, the American sneaker expert, and Terna Jibo, head of strategic insights at a London-based agency, Portland Design, made the point at last year's SLEM convention that shopping in brick-and-mortar stores needs to be more innovative and entertaining in order to engage customers who are increasingly tempted to order shoes online.

The new stores that are coming up are often smaller and more curated, or they have spaces for curated shopping. The new Foot Locker store on 42nd Street in Manhattan, for example, has a small inventory on the second floor, but a very select one, which looks like an art gallery or museum. The new Nike store in the Soho district of New York is designed to deliver the best of Nike's personalized services, from exclusive trial spaces to product customization. The store creates a seamless link between Nike's digital and physical platforms, and its new flagship store on Fifth Avenue, which is due to come on stream in the spring, will have a whole floor with curated shopping, exclusively dedicated to the users of its digital app. More on Nike's initiatives and those of other athletic footwear brands and sports retailers in our sister publication, Sporting Goods Intelligence Europe.

How SLEM became The Footwearists-----

The SLEM conference was a huge success, with executives from leading brands coming to Waalwijk from around the world, but the municipality of Waalwijk – the small former shoe town where the SLEM was based because of its intended collaboration with the local footwear museum – did not agree with Nicoline van Enter.

After a sudden shift in local politics due to upcoming elections, the local authorities decided to focus on the local audience only, stating that they did not want to support an institute that had such an international scope and were also not interested in creating groundbreaking innovations; they simply wanted a local history museum.

So, van Enter resigned and decided carry her work forward with her new company, The Footwearists. She was joined by three former members of her team. The board of directors initially intended to continue SLEM's program, but the sudden shift in direction also led to a disruption in financial agreements with the municipality, forcing SLEM to declare bankruptcy last July.

However, van Enter and her team made sure that the students who were still enrolled in SLEM's educational program at the time could still finish their training. They graduated last December with amazing projects, from the development of highly effective malaria-repellent sandals to new outsole bioplastics made of fish waste or hemp and new methods of 3D printing with liquids on leather and textiles. A student fully knitted a shoe, including the sole.

The nine-month footwear innovation program that van Enter had started has been terminated for now, but she wants to take it to the next level. She is currently building a new fellowship program with footwear companies, labs and universities around the world. She will share information about that as soon as possible on this website, In the second half of this year, she will also organize a new footwear innovation conference.

Van Enter will bring a new twist to her mission to bring meaningful innovation to the footwear industry. Sneakers are very much in fashion right now, and since she received many requests in recent years for training from both big sneaker brands as well as sneaker start-ups and aspiring sneaker designers, she has decided to create a new modular course program that is specifically focused on the sneaker industry. The Footwearists' new educational program consists of several short courses, each of which focuses on different aspects, from technical manufacturing knowledge to design, prototyping and innovative entrepreneurship. Instead of teaching innovative subjects on the circular economy or new technologies as separate classes, these and other subjects are now an integral part of each course. Participants can create their own ideal program. The classes take place around the world, even in China.