The Elche footwear cluster near Valencia is lauching a project called Eco Challenge, which aims to reduce manufacturing costs by 30 percent through the re-engineering of the manufacturing process.

The project has led to the creation of a consortium supported by the national footwear association Fice, Valencia’s shoe industry association, Avecal, the national association grouping the manufacturers of footwear components, Aeecc, and Inescop, the Spanish technological institute for footwear and related industries, as well as the local government of the Valencia region.

It will also apply to the central government’s initiative to identify strategic projects, subbed Perte, that will be eligible to European Union funds distributed to Spain under the Next Generation EU (NGEU) program. NGEU is a €750 billion recovery fund launched by the European Commission following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Spain will be the second largest recipient of funds, after Italy, with €140 billion allotted between 2021 and 2026. The package is composed of €72.7 billion in grants, which do not need to be repaid, and the remainder in loans.

Ximo Puig, the president of Valencia’s local government, Generalitat Valenciana, indicated that Eco Challenge has been included in a list of 20 leading initiatives for the region.

According to Ezequiel Sánchez, who is in charge of the project, Eco Challenge will represent an overall investment of €170 million. It aims to foster innovation, including in logistics, automated manufacturing and data management, for the nearly 50 companies involved. Sánchez expects Eco Challenge to be completed in 2026 and result in the creation of 8,000 jobs and the production of 24 million pairs of shoes annually in the Elche cluster.

The project will start this year with a €2.5 million investment into a “laboratory factory” that will employ about 100 people and have an annual capacity of around 600,000 pairs. Within two to three years, Eco Challenge is expected to have generated about 1,000 jobs and reached an annual production of 3.6 million pairs.

Sánchez stressed that the project’s targets can only be achieved if it leads to a significant reduction in manufacturing costs to be able to compete with Asian producers.

Sánchez is the chief strategy officer of the Elche-based engineering group Simplicity Works that is the driving force behind the project. He is the former head of Tempe, the footwear unit of the Inditex group which had sales of €1.4 billion in 2019.

Emulating the car industry

The Eco Challenge initiative was conceived by Adrián Hernández, the founder and CEO of Simplicity Works, during a trip to Milan in 2013. Its aim is to provide the footwear industry with a manufacturing process similar to the automotive industry and relies on a patented 3D bonding technology, he pointed out. On its website, Simplicity Works explains that the technology “eliminates most of the manual work required for the construction of the shoe because all the pieces of footwear are joined simultaneously. Not one by one as the traditional sewing (sequential) process requires.” It claims that one injection “bonds all the pieces of the product in a few seconds.”

The company also added that the technology combines robots, 3D printing, artificial intelligence and big data to provide the most efficient production system ever used in the footwear and other industries.

The Eco Challenge also aims to provide more sustainable manufacturing thanks to a better use of raw materials with 3D bonding and the development of a circular economy. The consortium includes the Elche-based company Greene which plans the reuse of 50,000 metric tons of waste a year.

The project includes other sustainability measures with the target of halving the carbon footprint of footwear manufacturing.