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The gold medal for top sportswear brand in the world, in terms of turnover, in 2020 was Nike, with Adidas for the silver medal. Oregon-based Nike brought in $39.1 billion, while its German competitor brought in $25.6 billion. To realize these profits, these brands compete to bring the hottest designs to market with the best performance as quickly as possible.
How did these companies start and win the sportswear supply chain race?
Earlier this year, we reported that the 3D printing market is expected to quadruple by 2030, making it a $51 billion market. Nike and Adidas have turned to 3D printing to improve their sneakers and reduce production time.
Nike is inspired by the ancient Greeks
Originally called Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS), the American brand Nike was founded in 1964 by an accounting professor, Phil Knight, and a college athletics coach, Bill Bowerman. When the growing company changed its name in 1971, it took inspiration from Greek mythology: the winged goddess Nike personifies victory. In ancient Olympia, Greece, where the first Olympic Games were held, stood a marble statue of Nike.
The “Swoosh” logo, designed for $35 by graphic design student Carolyn Davidson, was inspired by the shape of the goddess’s wing. It symbolizes speed, grace and triumph. Today, the logo is so iconic that it can replace the brand name and still be widely recognized.
While its sneakers are meant to get athletes performing as quickly as possible, Nike is also known for its fast supply chain that helps it win the athletic retail race.
Nike accelerates its supply chain with 3D printing
As early as 2013, Nike was looking at the benefits of additive manufacturing. Its Vapor Laser Talon soccer cleat used a revolutionary 3D printed plate. This immediately inspired them to then create the Nike Vapor Carbon 2014 Elite Crampon. Then they presented their second 3D printed football boot, the Nike Vapor Hyper Agility Cramponswho used Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) 3D printing to embed small particles of material into a 3D shape using lasers.
In 2016, Nike Zoom Superfly Flyknit took advantage of 3D prototyping to develop a sprint spike for a running shoe that met the stiffness desired by an athlete. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) 3D printing has reduced the process from weeks to just days, allowing for rapid modifications.
In 2018, Nike introduced the first-ever 3D-printed textile upper in performance sneakers with Flyprint. Using computer design tools to analyze the athlete data it captures, Flyprint finds the right material composition for an athlete’s needs. Then it uses solid deposition modeling (SDM) to create the rods.
More recently, in 2021, Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Following Nature began using recycled waste from the 3D printing process that develops the material for its Flyprint and Flyknit upper. This both improves durability and reduces the need for purchasing materials.
Nike’s Express Lane initiative, which began in 2016, has reduced its supply chain timeline from months to a few weeks. This program uses rapid prototyping and uses 3D printing to bring sneakers to market faster than traditional manufacturing methods. In 2018, the company confirmed that 3D prototyping made the process 16 times faster than previous methods.
Adidas generates its own electricity
Adidas, headquartered in Herzogenaurach, Germany, is Europe’s largest sportswear manufacturer. The company was founded in 1924 as Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory) by brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler in their mother’s house. Unlike today’s tech conglomerates, the brothers sometimes had to ride a stationary bike to generate electricity they needed to run their equipment due to how erratic the electricity was at the time.
When they convinced runner Jessie Owens to wear their sneakers during the Berlin Olympics, he won four gold medals and Dassler shoes sold many more shoes. But, after World War II, the brothers fell out and split the business. Rudolf created Puma — today the third largest sportswear brand — and Adi took on Adidas, which now owns subsidiary Reebok.
The name Adidas comes from the name of its owner: Adolph was nicknamed “Adi”, and the “das” is simply the first three letters of his surname, Dassler.
The hallmark of the Adidas logo is its three stripes, and Adidas often referred to itself as the three stripe mark. The stripes were apparently added to durability and variety. The company bought his logo for Karhu Sports, a Finnish sports equipment company that had fallen on hard times during the war, for “€1,600 and two bottles of whisky” (euros today would be around $2,000) in 1952.
While the three stripes remained, the logo itself went through various iterations. In 1971, the company launched the Adidas Clover. The three leaves of the clover logo were meant to represent the three markets the company was selling to at the time: Europe, North America and Asia.
More recently, in 2002, Adidas introduced a sphere for its NEO sub-brand. This is intended to appeal to a younger generation.
Sometimes the company just uses its signature stripes. However, the General Court of the European Union issued a verdict that the three stages cannot be a registered trademark.
Adidas runs towards 3D printing
Adidas turned to 3D printing to help compress its supply chain and increase its mass customization capabilities. She got into additive manufacturing in 2014 and sought to overcome some of the early hurdles of 3D printing related to material restrictions and slow build speed.
In 2017, Adidas released its Futurecraft 4D. In collaboration with Carbon, a California-based 3D printer manufacturer, they created “the world’s first high-performance shoes featuring midsoles engineered with light and oxygen using digital light synthesis” (DLS). The company removed the need for standard prototyping and used 17 years of running data. Carbon’s DLS technology has proven victory over the shortcomings of 3D printing that Adidas has struggled with before. It took the production process of a single shoe midsole 90 minutes to a only 20 minutes.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Adidas has still managed to innovate. In 2020, they unveiled the Futurecraft STRUNG, which was described as “the “ultimate” 3D printed running shoe.” Working again with Carbon, they created a 3D-printed midsole that uses performance data to customize the shoes to perfectly fit each wearer’s foot. For this shoe, Adidas and Carbon partnered with Belgium-based 3D printing company Materialise, which uses its 3-matic data optimization software to create a lightweight mesh upper that combines the flexibility desired by the wearer with his need for strength.
While many companies have relocated amid the pandemic, Adidas has actually closed its German and US subsidiaries. Speed Factories in 2020. He partnered with Oechsler AG, a German precision injection molded parts company, to continue his 4D printing in Asia.
The competition continues
Nike’s Swoosh and Adidas’ Three Stripes outshine the competition, in part because of their investment in 3D printing. Today’s sneaker enthusiasts and athletes demand speed to market. In fact, Nike’s Vaporfly sneakers were banned from the Olympics when the scarcity of the product meant that runners who managed to obtain them had a technological advantage over those who couldn’t get their hands on a pair.
Technology will continue to develop to create shoes with superior performance, custom products designed specifically for the highly individualized needs and preferences of the person who will wear them, and fast, automated delivery.
Get more information on the role of 3D printing in the supply chain
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