The athletic footwear market is highly competitive, with global brands Nike, Adidas, Asics, Puma, and Under Armour leading the way. These well-capitalized global brands have invested heavily in 3-D Printing technology in recent years, allowing for rapid prototyping and the production of signature pieces for elite athletes. Though 3-D Printing of shoe components is now common, particularly for the midsole, production of truly personalized shoes for the mass market has been limited. Brooks Running is poised to change that, but will Brooks be incorporating true 3-D Printing technology into these mass market shoes any time soon?
Founded in 1914, Brooks Running is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway and is headquartered in Seattle. In a crowded footwear market, Brooks has chosen to limit its focus to satisfying the unique needs and demands of runners, opting to do just one thing, “mak[ing] the best running gear in the world. Nothing more. Nothing less.” Brooks focuses on offering specialized high-tech features in its shoes as its competitive differentiation, noting that these are “what really set our running shoes apart.” Some of their signature technologies include Guide Rails (midsole construction that helps the hips, knees, and ankle move in their unique motion path), the DNA Midsole (adaptive midsole cushioning), and 3-D printed engineered structures in the upper of the shoe to enhance structure while maintaining flexibility and light weight . Rather than attempting to provide one-size-fits-all products, these technologies reinforce Brooks’ focus on making shoes that adapt to each runner’s unique biomechanics. Providing fully personalized running shoes is the logical next step as Brooks continues to develop products infused with cutting-edge technology that provide a customized running experience for consumers.
To take this next step, Brooks announced in May 2018 that they will begin offering the Brooks Genesys, the company’s first personalized performance running shoe, throughout the U.S. through select retail partners beginning in early 2019. A customer’s unique biomechanics will be scanned in store at select retailers through the FitStation, a product offered by HP, with whom Brooks is partnering through this process .
However, while the front-end, customer facing technology is innovative, the actual manufacturing is still old-school – the scanned impressions are used to create each individual Genesys not through an additive manufacturing process but through traditional injection molding. A closer inspection of Brooks’ actual experience with additive manufacturing shoes that it is still quite nascent and very much limited to prototyping and design – the company just recently purchased a 3-D printer to reduce design and prototyping time .
In the medium term, the company intends to continue to adapt to the demands of the market and the improved ability to rapidly prototype different designs using 3-D printing technology. Company management states that the short-term initiatives involving FitStation are the culmination of years of efforts to integrate the manufacturing and data collection process into one central hub, and they believe that this will pay dividends down the road. However, the company does not seem to have any concrete plans to introduce 3-D printing in its mass market shoes .
I would recommend a few steps to Brooks management team. First, in the short-term, I would focus on executing on the Genesys and the personalized footwear revolution. Offering a customized shoe to fit a runner’s unique biomechanics is a step in the right direction and consistent with Brooks’ mission to deliver high-end technology for runners.
In the long-term, I would recommend that Brooks explore other ways of incorporating 3-D printing into its mass market shoes. While using 3-D printing to reduce design and prototyping iteration time is valuable, a more systematic approach to mass production should be explored. Brooks has certainly moved in the right direction with customization at the point of sale with the consumer and by 3-D printing certain structures within the shoe, but in the long-term Brooks should explore partnerships with manufacturers who can produce 3-D printed shoes on an end-to-end basis. While certain developments are promising, such as Brooks’ manufacturing partner Superfeet recently opening a facility in Washington that has improved 3-D printing capabilities, Brooks should develop and communicate a concrete plan to continue to bring the best of next generation 3-D printing technologies to the mass market.
When will additive manufacturing be cost-effective enough to be used for true end-to-end mass market manufacturing of shoes?
Though it aspires to be a leader in footwear technology, does a specialized company like Brooks have the capabilities to be a leader in additive manufacturing, especially when competing against global giants like Nike and Adidas?
- Bans, Alec. “Who is Winning the 3D Printing Battle in Footwear & Why?” https://www.highsnobiety.com/2016/12/15/3d-printed-shoes-nike-adidas/
- Brooks Running Company Website. https://www.brooksrunning.com/en_us/meet-brooks/technology
- “Brooks Running Company Unveils First Personalized Performance Running Shoe”. May 23, 2018. Brooks Running Company Website. https://www.brooksrunning.com/en_us/05-23-2018.html#clpxwtwjLyfMXy52.99
- “Brooks Running Case Study”. https://studiofathom.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/FATHOM-Stratasys-Brooks-Running-Case-Study.pdf
- Goehrke, Sarah Anderson. “Brooks Runs Happy with Personalized High-Performance Running Shoes.” https://3dprint.com/215121/brooks-hp-interview/