Smart Shoes, Mass Customization, Rapid Prototyping

What is the future of the shoe manufacturing technology? New technical developments, such as CAD, 3D printers and “Smart Shoes” offer new chances for manufacturers to meet the challenges of the market such as process optimization. The following contribution elucidates the most important trends that can also be seen at Texprocess in May next year.

One of the state-of-the-art production technologies that are used for the manufacturing of shoes is rapid prototyping. Rapid figuring has become affordable even to small companies and development offices by means of efficient desktop computers, costing less than 3.000 EUR, and coloured consumables. No output without input. The data for a prototype are generated by computer-aided design programs that continually offer more sector-specific solutions. The central point of discussion is the direct networking of product development (computer-aided design), product data management (PDM) and resource planning (enterprise resource planning ERP) by means of an efficient data base. Based on their history, many companies are provided with isolated applications in these divisions which may cause friction loss, duplication of work and lack of transparency of processes. This costs the companies a lot of money and is poison to economic efficiency. Even though credits are cheap in Germany at the moment, and the competitors in the Far East are struggling with increasing labour costs, the shoe manufacturing sector is rated risky and not trustworthy by the bankers. This means that the hidden treasures must be raised.

Process optimization: It’s not water under the bridge

Rapid figuring and short production are possible thanks to information technology (IT). However, that would not help without optimizing the operational sequence scheduling. According to Theo Kuffler, director of  RG Technologies GmbH, Feldkirchen-Westerham (Germany), process optimization still offers much potential of cost cutting for Central European companies. The keywords are “process control and monitoring”, “quality reproducibility” and “flexible automation”. These are not new things but seem to be an issue in the manufacturing process even nowadays. The developments of the engineering industry can contribute to the aspect of “flexible automation”: Cut out technology directly combined with the CAD system and programmable sewing and assembly machines. On the one hand both approaches shorten the working processes (partial processes such as manufacture of templates or cutting dies can be omitted), set-up times (polling of programs by push of a button) and thus make quality assurance easier. On the other hand, both approaches signify investment in machinery and plants and training of staff for the programming work as well.

Between hype and market facts

Smart Shoes surely rank among the hypes because the first commercial applications are placed on the market  rather sluggishly. Among them are shoes equipped with GPS for persons suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or autism (GPS SmartSoles, Los Angeles (USA)) or insoles with Bluetooth connection to Google Maps that by means of language and foot movement can receive commands and show the route to be walked by vibrations (Lechal, Secunderabad (India)). Changes in feet have been investigated scientificly and proven by serial measurements in 2009 (PFI Pirmasens (Germany) in cooperation with TiB Dr. Richter gGmbH, Thalheim (Germany) and the Bekleidungsphysiologisches Institut Hohenstein, Bönnigheim (Germany)) (apparel physiology institute Hohenstein): Feethave become wider and more voluminous, the proportion of the forefoot and the heel has changed, men have longer feet, as well. Dr. Simone Flick, Sport Scientist und Department Manager for Research and Development at ISC, Pirmasens concludes from this that not only the physical shoe must be adapted but also the parameters the graduation is based on. The graduation up to the large marginal sizes must not progress linearly because otherwise the fit is affected.

This detail is also relevant to Ellen Waßmann, standardization consultant of the German Association of Shoe and Leather Goods Manufacturing Industry (HDSL) at Offenbach (Germany). About 60 percent of jobholders face foot problems. Safety shoes are increasingly in demand in the sizes 52/53 up to a width of 15. She is currently concerned with the European Union bill of a regulation for personal protective equipment (PSA) that replace the rule 89/686/EEC in the next years. The shoe manufacturing industry is facing new definitions for orthopaedic custom-made shoes and finishing and for safety shoes as well. Ellen Waßmann, however, gave the all-clear: The rule enhances comprehensibility and does not include further tightening. At the same time she refers to the code of practice for the European certified inspection authorities (Recommendation of Use, 2013) and the German Obligatory Accident Insurance rule No.112-191 (former rule No. BGR* 191) for the use of foot and knee protection and standard Z1259  for orthopaedic safety shoes and professional shoes which anticipate, with regard to contents, the expected personal protective equipment regulation

Mass Customization as a Market Research Instrument

Besides of being a means of protection and a facilitation for walking, shoes are articles of fashion. Retail offers an overwhelming wealth and variety of designs. Nevertheless individualists want to design their shoes online which in technical lingo means mass customization. This is not a problem thanks to industrial single-piece production which indeed costs a bit more and lasts a bit longer till the customer holds the good piece in his hands. The trailblazer was the sports shoes manufacturer Nike in 1999 and further suppliers followed soon. One can only speculate about the current market share of mass customization in the shoe manufacturing industry. However it offers the advantage of a direct interaction with the wearer of the shoes who presumably is not only addicted to the internet but also is a pioneer in terms of shoe fashion. An analysis of the orders sheds light on the preferences of the target group. The result can be used in the next assortment.


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