The first notions of what is today ‘s prolific global industry supply chain presence began with the apparel and footwear industry. Now this same industry is moving in the direction of Industry 4.0.

A posting by Digiwaxx Media’s TheBlast  observes that German based apparel and footwear manufacturer Adidas will soon start the marketing of shoes manufactured by robots within Germany.

This posting notes:

More than 20 years after Adidas ceased production activities in Germany and moved then to Asia, Adidas unveiled the group’s new prototype “Speedfactory” in Germany.”

The German footwear provider is also planning to operate similar “Speedfactory” in the United States along with one in Western Europe. Both the German and U.S. automated factories are initially being planned to produce upwards of half a million pair of shoes annually, and according to reports, would be priced similarly as those produced in Asia.  Addidas Futurecraft

The basis of the supply chain strategy is to produce closest to the major areas of product demand, thus avoiding added global transportation and inventory carrying costs. What has brought this strategy closer to fruition is the combination of higher direct labor costs in high volume manufacturing areas such as China, meeting the technology convergence of faster, more dexterous, and cheaper robots.

In his book, Thank You for Being Late, An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, internationally recognized author Thomas Friedman has an entire chapter devoted to what is described as The Supernova. Noted by Friedman:

With each new (computing and technology) platform, the computing power bandwidth and software capabilities all meld together and change the method, cost, or power and speed in which we do things, or pioneer totally new things we can do that we never imagined- and sometimes all of the above. And these leaps are now coming faster and faster, at shorter and shorter intervals.”

Many publications cite the statistic that it took 50 years for the world to install the first million industrial robots while the next million will take only eight years to reach that milestone. That includes the wide-scale adoption of automated assembly techniques within China itself. Thus is the opportunity being provided to apparel and footwear providers, as well as other industry supply chains that have a high sensitivity to direct labor costs within respective products. Noted is an estimate from German robot producer Kuka indicating that a typical indutrial robot can cost in the area of 5 euros an hour to operate.

Nike was one of the first shoe manufacturers to pioneer the 3D printed Flynit athletic shoes five years ago and now, Adidas is pioneering its application of automated shoe manufacturing.

In the not too distant future, apparel manufacturers will do the same. Industry disruptors focused on “fast fashion” business strategies have been leveraging supply chain near-shoring strategies to provide far more agile responses to the latest and most prominent fashion trends. Their appeal to higher margin, in-demand fast fashion supports higher pricing and thus flexibilities to support near-shoring of fast production. The key to fast fashion has proven to be more agile supply chain sourcing strategies and such strategies will be enhanced further when robotics is applied to the precision cutting and sewing of fabrics.

Of course, there are many social and workforce implications to these trends, all very important to social responsibility practices. That topic deserves a more detailed blog commentary.

Suffice at this point, to close with the takeaway that an industry that was noted as one of the earliest adopters of global based, low-cost manufacturing outsourcing is now on the verge of adopting Industry 4.0 supply chain practices.

Bob Ferrari

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