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The Speedfactory’s main strength is to shorten the supply chain, and so the time to shops, to less than a week, perhaps even to a day, once the trainer design is complete. The design process itself is increasingly done digitally. The trainers are not just styled on a computer screen but can also be tested by the computer for things like fit and performance. To enhance the process, the Speedfactory will also have a digital twin: a virtual computer model in which production of the new trainers can be simulated. Once all is well, the digital product will then move to the physical production system. Adidas claims its new production system is extremely fast and highly flexible. The details are being kept secret for now.
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What is known, however, is that instead of ordering components that will be assembled into a new pair of trainers, the Speedfactory will instead make most of the parts itself from raw materials, such as plastics, fibres and other basic substances. The machines carrying out this work will be highly automated and use processes such as computerised knitting, robotic cutting and additive manufacturing, which involves building up shapes layer by layer. Industrial 3D printing machines are appearing in many different forms and are capable of handling an increasing variety of materials. Driven by software, the robots, knitting machines and 3D printers take their instructions directly from the computer-design program.
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So they can switch from making one thing to another quickly, without having to stop production for what can amount to several days in order to retool conventional machines and instruct manual workers. Not every job in the Speedfactory will be automated. Robots can be slower and less precise at some tasks, such as the final shaping of a shoe. So each Speedfactory will create 160 production jobs, compared with a thousand or more in a typical factory in Asia. The new functions will also be more highly skilled. Adidas wants the new plants to complement the Asian operations, not to compete with them. But as advanced manufacturing expands.
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Sneakerheads are likely to approve. “This will lead to products that will look and perform differently,” says Mr Manz. Leaving behind manual production methods will allow Adidas to come up with novel shapes and finishes. One new material the firm has already experimented with is Biosteel, a synthetic silk made by AMSilk, a German biotech company. Production will also become more customised, perhaps even with bespoke trainers fashioned from a computer scan of how a person walks or runs. In such a competitive and trend-driven market, one thing is certain: Adidas’s arch-rival Nike will not just sit on the touchline. The American company faces similar cost increases in Asia and is equally keen to shorten the time it takes to get new products to market.