The shoe factory of the future?
A possible view into how footwear production may change in the years to come.
by Phil Shaw
Image © DESMA
Until the advent of the sports shoe or trainers (sneakers), the majority of footwear manufacturing plants had a degree of similarity. Someone walking into a shoe factory would recognise many of the processes and much of the equipment from visits to other plants.
However, as the products began to change and new materials were introduced, this uniformity of production lessened. Over the intervening half century, the pace of change has accelerated and should continue to do so.
Another major factor has been the move away from the traditional manufacturing centres in Europe and North America to Asia, which presaged an increase in size of the factories. Alongside this was the setting up of global supply chains to service the growing demands worldwide for a much more varied range of products.
Prior to the move to Asia, the industry was investing in equipment to reduce the labour costs. However, these technological developments slowed as the availability of relatively low-cost labour in China, India and other countries negated this investment. Operations which traditionally required a high degree of individual skill could be segmented in a number of smaller, less demanding tasks, which could be learned quickly.
We are now at a fascinating stage of our industry’s development. This ready supply of labour is under severe pressure as other industrial sectors are competing for the same people, pushing up costs and offering alternative employment. Thus, shoemakers worldwide are re-evaluating the current organisation of their manufacturing plants.
In parallel with this pressure on employment is the increasing rise of technology, known as ‘Industry 4.0’, that is both cost-effective and offers, for the first time, a degree of artificial intelligence to support efficient mass production (see the article ‘Industry 4.0 automation’ for an overview of this process).
Aside from these two major elements, there are additional pressures – such as the gradually growing awareness of ethical and environmental considerations and the need to use rapidly diminishing resources more efficiently.
What may the future factory look like?
Perhaps the single, most noticeable change could be the lack of uniformity between manufacturing plants. There may be factories which manufacture large quantities of similar products, often making the same style for days and able to achieve high levels of efficiency. Where it is possible to plan in this way, we might see the increasing use of robotics and computer-controlled equipment, as well as high level, artificial intelligence to constantly monitor and control the process conditions to maintain optimum quality.
In order to achieve this type of production, the materials and components used would have to be of reliable and consistent quality. Materials such a leather (and components made from natural materials) are unlikely to be able to meet this criterion, so the use of man-made materials – some of which seek to mimic the properties of natural materials – will probably be widespread. This would have implications for the equipment used to assemble the products. As there would be less variation in the dimensions and properties of the materials and components, operations that use precise process conditions (for example, heat, pressure and time) would be monitored automatically, and any slight variation in these conditions instantly rectified.
Footwear products manufactured in this way would be of consistent quality, made to a reliable schedule, and under a controlled cost. The downside to this is that changes in style and colour would be disruptive, thus this type of environment would be best used on less fashionable products which are aimed at a more consistent market.
Industry 4.0 is designed to improve the flexibility of manufacturing systems and therefore could conceivably help to adapt control systems to changes in style or colour. Major changes (such as in materials or components) can impose more demands on efficient production.
The extreme alternative to this type of manufacturing is a smaller, less automated production to meet the constantly changing demands of the fashion market. These shoes would be made in small quantities, from a wide variety of materials and need the individual skills of experienced operatives. It is unlikely that a significant level of automation can be applied to this type of production due to the constant variation, range of sizes, styles and lasts used, and the inclusion of natural materials.
Of course, these two scenarios reflect the extremes of a range of production types, with many variations in between. It is likely that many footwear producers will have a mix of both types.
The majority of requests for footwear production is likely to continue to be from customers who will be responsible for the placement of these products into the retail market. Organisations such as the major retailers and wholesalers can be expected to forecast what will sell, respond to buying patterns and order finished footwear from the producers. However, there may be a much smaller but growing demand for footwear from individual customers who will contact the producers directly. These consumers could send in detailed biometric information about their feet, together with the chosen style, colours and so on, enabling the factory to create bespoke, customised shoes.
Recent years have seen an increase in the number of footwear suppliers offering their customers a variety of made-to-order products. These range from the customer selecting the style, colours and some features of the product from a narrow menu of possible options, to the other extreme whereby the customer can practically design the shoe (often in conjunction with the company personnel), selecting the materials and components, and adding individual logos or signatures.
This type of operation imposes considerable pressure on the conventional production organisation, so some manufacturers have set up small, flexible teams to meet the demand, while allowing their main manufacturing facility to continue with volume production.
The traditional approach to production planning was to arrange for the manufacturing operation to make what was expected to sell (the ‘push’ method). Using this approach, the manufacturer would purchase materials and components to the expected level of use and keep these in stock, ready for the time when they were needed.
The alternative approach (known as the ‘pull’ method) required the production facility to be much more responsive to the customer’s needs, making only what was required and to meet the deadline. This method required the manufacturer to have significantly higher levels of stock – both materials and components – to be able to respond to the customer’s wishes. The ‘pull’ method was often used alongside changes in the manufacturing operation to reduce both throughput times and batch size. These changes increased the flexibility of the manufacturing operation; essential to meet the consumer’s needs.
As the manufacturing time for a pair of shoes continues to fall from weeks and days to hours, the production planning function needs to reflect this. There is little point in spending time and resources trying to plan production processes that in extreme cases can be made in minutes or hours.
Instead, ensuring that the flexibility to make whatever is demanded quickly would require more resources to be allocated to maintaining adequate stocks of materials and components. This would make sure that the labour element is truly multiskilled and that manufacturing equipment is kept at the required level of operational efficiency.
Of course, manufacturing variable quantities of different styles would impose pressure on the costing function. Traditionally, the build-up of the selling price of footwear includes a significant amount to cover overheads and indirect labour. Constantly changing the batch size would have implications for this approach, which is generally based around a known, average size of batch and efficiency.
The footwear designer will almost certainly continue to have the responsibility to not only create products that are fashionable and comfortable while performing safely and as expected, but increasingly also use sustainable materials which have a reduced impact on the environment. No doubt, there could be a conflict between the demands of the fashion market and the need to manufacture products that meet customer’s expectations of performance, comfort, sustainability and the environment.
Additionally, there is likely to be pressure for these products to be recyclable.
Knitted uppers and 3D printing
There are several technologies which, although not new, have only recently found their way into the footwear industry. For example, knitted uppers are now a recognised part of the athletic and leisure sector, replacing the traditional ‘cut and stitch’ approach. These lightweight uppers offer a number of advantages to the wearer (notably comfort and a wide range of design/colour features), and significantly change the production environment.
Similarly, three-dimensional (3D) printing is progressively being explored as an alternative to conventional methods of manufacturing. This technology not only offers significantly reduced set-up times for new styles, but also reduces waste. It is likely that kitting and 3D printing will be more widely used – in sectors other than athletic/casual products – and perhaps, in part, mixed with traditional methods of shoemaking. It is possible to envisage shoemakers using leather for the main upper components of the product and either sourcing, or producing in-house, specific standardised components by 3D printing.
Health and safety
The growing awareness that employers should seek to minimise or eliminate any risks to the health of their employees is impacting on the manufacturing process, with this continuing in future scenarios. Some of the manufacturing equipment traditionally used can generate considerable noise – well above the recommended limit. The use of protective hearing defenders has, to some extent, mitigated this, but this type of noise can affect other personnel who are not directly involved in the operation.
Improved soundproofing of manufacturing equipment would be helpful, but the use of more automated – in some cases, unmanned machinery – should help to minimise the risk to operatives.
The same is true for machinery with moving parts – in many cases, these machines will become more automated. The approach seen already in the non-footwear sectors, of virtually unmanned but highly monitored sequences of machines producing either part or complete products, could become a reality in shoemaking. It is likely that the future shoe factory will have to invest significantly much more in safety equipment to deal with noise and moving parts.
To an extent, this is already being addressed in some sectors through the use of ‘cobots’ (collaborative robots). Cobots are robots that interact directly with human operatives such as assisting with handling parts, delivering, positioning and then removing the part to and from a human station. These are heavily fitted with sensors to allow for safe operation in very close proximity to the operatives.
Other problems that can be addressed come from the use of chemicals such as solvents. The progressive change away from solvent-based to water-based adhesives should continue to reduce the risk to employees.
The reach of technology
The use of information technology in many forms will undoubtedly be widely used in future manufacturing. ‘Internet of things’ (IoT) systems are starting to become more common in small ecosystems. An ‘enterprise resource planning’ (ERP) system exists for some machines, which uses information available from IoT systems to monitor the machines, as well as maintenance requirements and breakdowns and general machine usage. It then uses this information to assist the planning of production lines. For example, if an unforeseen circumstance causes delays in manufacture, future customer production lines may be affected. If there is a priority line that must hit a deadline, the software can automatically adjust the schedule to minimise disruption to important deadlines.
IoT systems generally only work where one developer creates a large number of machines which work together in a production line – it only takes an enterprising software company to ‘connect the dots’. Most machines have a method of outputting their running condition. Therefore, as they become more common, an increased level of cross-compatibility will hopefully develop. Such different systems would start working together more easily, bringing us ever closer to the Industry 4.0 concept.
It is conceivable that within the short term, manufacturing equipment will report on its status and condition. For instance, if a service is due, or important components have reached a predetermined level of wear, or if a breakdown does occur, the equipment may inform engineering personnel of the likely cause. There are already several commercially-available software systems that attempt to rebalance a manufacturing programme should a delay or breakdown occur.
Additionally, this type of technology application would increasingly allow much of the pre-production activity to be more efficient and faster. Materials and component suppliers could provide laboratory or product test reports on demand, the development team would be able to carry out costings, testing and risk assessments electronically, and the planning department would have the ability to simulate potential manufacturing scenarios to establish the optimum using software packages such as SATRA TimeLine.
Progressive de-skilling of operatives
In many of the developed economies, the pattern of employment is constantly changing. Recent analysis of several European countries has indicated that around 20 per cent of new entrants into the job market intend to be self-employed, and nearly half of the remainder state that they do not see themselves working for long periods at one job. They expect to constantly move around employers to both increase their income and job interest. This pattern is beginning to be replicated in Asian countries that currently rely on high levels of relatively unchanging labour that can be trained.
As this trend continues, it has significant implications for the skill levels that can be maintained in the footwear industry. The traditional pattern of long service allied to significant, individual skills, is likely to change – and the expectation is that information technology and automation will progressively supplant much of the current operative skill. This approach would be more widespread in companies which use synthetic materials, as even though there has been significant improvement with automation, even the most sophisticated technology can struggle to cope with variation seen within the more natural leathers, such as aniline and nubuck.
Awareness of the damage to our planet is a growing factor and is expected to increasingly impact on many of our business activities. Shoemaking will no doubt be affected. In the factory of the future, we can expect to see many more environmentally-friendly processes. For example, the monitoring of energy usage and the minimising of any unnecessary power consumption, together with a strict policy of machine maintenance and replacement, is likely to become increasingly widespread, leading to savings in energy costs as well as meeting environmental standards.
The use of sustainably-sourced materials may also be a major part of the design and development process. Already, some industry experts have expressed concern that the increasing trend to consuming non-meat foods could lead to a significant drop in demand for farmed animals, causing less leather to be available. Additionally, the sourcing of natural materials such as cotton, silk and wool is being scrutinised by the environmental lobby, with the presumption that these may create less impact than artificially created alternatives such as nylon and rayon.
Wherever possible, waste material created during the manufacturing processes could form an important part of other components (such as leather board) or even finished products. Examples include injecting waste soling materials mixed with virgin compounds, and recycled rubber blended with a binder being used for playground surfaces.
A number of companies offer footwear made in part from recycled materials, and many athletic/leisure products manufactured in this way are now available. There are now several major brand owners and retailers incorporating recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic into their shoes and clothing.
However, there has been little evidence of commercially-successful recycling of whole footwear. There are numerous instances of footwear at the end of their life being used for plant holders and other forms of decoration, but so far there has been no widespread use of discarded footwear continuing to be used as footwear.
Several footwear manufacturers are considering offering a return service, taking back worn products from customers to not only minimise the level of footwear going into landfill sites, but also to explore if any of the materials in the worn shoes can be recycled.
Other industry sectors have successfully adopted the concept of true recycling and demonstrated that this can not only provide significant environmental benefits, but be financially rewarding as well. The automotive industry is well advanced in this respect, and there are certainly some aspects which the footwear industry can identify and perhaps include in the future.
As we move inevitably into the technology-dominated manufacturing age, there is no doubt that the shoemaking companies have the opportunity to offer their customers an ever-increasing choice of styles, materials and delivery options. The shoe factory of the future will probably look significantly different to today’s operation. However, whatever form it takes, it is likely that there will still be the need for a human input to design and organise the manufacture of some footwear.
How can we help?
Please contact SATRA’s innovations and development team (firstname.lastname@example.org) to discuss future development in footwear production.
This article was originally published on page 12 of the March 2021 issue of SATRA Bulletin.