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BEHIND closed doors in the Bavarian town of Ansbach a new factory is taking shape. That it will use robots and novel production techniques such as additive manufacturing (known as 3D printing) is not surprising for Germany, which has maintained its manufacturing base through innovative engineering. What is unique about this factory is that it will not be making cars, aircraft or electronics but trainers and other sports shoes—an $80bn-a-year industry that has been offshored largely to China, Indonesia and Vietnam. By bringing production home, this factory is out to reinvent an industry. The Speedfactory, as the Ansbach plant is called, belongs to Adidas, a giant German sports-goods firm, and is being built with Oechsler Motion, a local firm that makes manufacturing equipment.
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Production is due to begin in mid-2017, slowly at first and then ramping up to 500,000 pairs of trainers a year. Adidas is constructing a second Speedfactory near Atlanta for the American market. If all goes well, they will spring up elsewhere, too. The numbers are tiny for a company that makes some 300m pairs of sports shoes each year. Yet Adidas is convinced the Speedfactory will help it to transform the way trainers are created. The techniques it picks up from the project can then be rolled out to other new factories as well as to existing ones, including in Asia—where demand for sports and casual wear is rising along with consumer wealth. Currently, trainers are made mostly by hand in giant factories.
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Rising prosperity in the region means the cost of manual work outsourced to the region is rising. Labour shortages loom. Certain jobs require craft skills which are becoming rarer; many people now have the wherewithal to avoid tasks that can be dirty or monotonous. Adidas’s motivation for its Speedfactories, however, goes well beyond labour cost. People want fashionable shoes immediately, but the supply chain struggles to keep up. “The way our business operates is probably the opposite of what consumers desire,” says Gerd Manz, the company’s head of technology innovation. , often in Asian countries, with people assembling components or shaping, bonding and sewing materials.
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From the first sketch of a completely new pair of trainers to making and testing prototypes, ordering materials, sending samples back and forth, retooling a factory, working up production and eventually shipping the finished goods to the shops can take the industry as long as 18 months. Yet some three-quarters of new trainers are now on sale for less than a year. An order to replenish an existing, in-demand design—the latest edition of the NMD R1, say, a popular trainer in 2015-16—can take two or three months to reach the shelves, unless the shoes travel not in a shipping container but at huge cost in the hold of an aircraft.