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Brooks Running: Personalized Running Shoes for the Mass Market?

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Beginning in 2019, Brooks Running will offer a personalized running shoe made using 3-D technology. But when will we see true mass-market shoes produced through additive manufacturing?

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[1]. 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 [2]. 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 [3].

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 [4].

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 [5].

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?

 

(752 words)

  1. Bans, Alec. “Who is Winning the 3D Printing Battle in Footwear & Why?” https://www.highsnobiety.com/2016/12/15/3d-printed-shoes-nike-adidas/
  2. Brooks Running Company Website. https://www.brooksrunning.com/en_us/meet-brooks/technology
  3. “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
  4. “Brooks Running Case Study”. https://studiofathom.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/FATHOM-Stratasys-Brooks-Running-Case-Study.pdf
  5. Goehrke, Sarah Anderson. “Brooks Runs Happy with Personalized High-Performance Running Shoes.” https://3dprint.com/215121/brooks-hp-interview/

 

10 thoughts on “Brooks Running: Personalized Running Shoes for the Mass Market?

  1. This is a very interesting essay. As a runner I personally would love to have a shoe that is tailored to my running style. I do, however, agree with the thought behind your question at the end of the essay: I am skeptical that additive manufacturing will ever be able to produce shoes with the same cost basis as more traditional manufacturing processes. Additionally, I would be curious whether scientists have a good enough understanding of biomechanics to truly personalize shoes for each individual. It seems to me that many of these “customized” products are really just 2-3 different SKUs.

  2. Great post! I am also concerned about how much differentiation barriers they have against giant brands. With more capital, R&D experience, and user bases, it might be really easy for giant brands to just copy the 3D printing shoes and consumer value proposition.

  3. Interesting read! It does seem like 3D printing might not be currently a solution applicable to all manufacturing industries as I had previously thought, although probably in the future materials science will advance and it will be possible to 3D print at least part of our sneakers. However, I do know that the shoe manufacturing industry is very labor intensive, and I wonder what will happen to the workforce that is currently working in the industry and if there is anything Brooks Running can do to mitigate the damage to their workforce.

  4. Thank you for sharing, I enjoyed the reading very much!
    As you pointed out, when giants such as NIKE/Adidas enter I suspect it would be tough for them because customization would be the standard and they cannot maintain the edge by being “more customized”. Also, I wonder if this customization needs to be done through 3D printing, not regular custom production (does it really reduce costs, or in what situation is it better to produce with 3D). Said that, I would like to support the vision of creating the best running gear and go on the giants.

  5. This is a really interesting application of AM. I am curious to see if there is a way for Brooks Running to generalize certain runners that have ordered bespoke shoes into categories in order to make their product(s) available to the mass market (since it seems that they are not using AM to produce the actual shoe, but rather the prototype). Additionally, I see a key challenge being the customization. For example, if the shoe doesn’t fit (no pun intended), is the customer able to return the shoe to the retailer?

  6. Thanks for this interesting take. I agree that “the future” would seem to be that Brooks can 3D print customized shoes in real-time for a customer within a retail store, such that they can walk out with the shoe that is right for them. I guess my question on that is – is there actually a one perfect design for each foot? Sure, certain runners might need more arch support or more cushion than the next, and maybe that can be identified via technology, but I also think that a lot of user preference goes into a purchase like this. When I buy shoes, I try on a few options, run with them on the treadmill, and decide what feels the best for me. The retail specialist might inform those options by looking at my feet, but they can’t necessarily pick one specific shoe for me. While additive manufacturing itself is quite sophisticated now, I wonder where Brooks is with the ability to interpret and categorize data about runners’ feet and needs in order to drive that custom manufacturing. Assuming there are able to get there, I wonder – at some point, do their manufacturing facilities that produce standardized shoe types via a traditional process become obsolete? Or will there always be demand for “off the shelf” shoes that can solve for the needs of the majority of runners?

  7. This is an interesting application of AM, and makes you wonder if it is just a matter of time that almost all apparel goes in this direction. I’m curious what the cost trajectory looks like, i.e., at what point could the costs of product in a bespoke manner differ from traditional mass production. I think, as you hinted at, this trend would make you wonder if Brooks would want to bring manufacturing in-house, to allow unique store experiences and vertical integration.

  8. As a runner, I can certainly appreciate the mass-market potential of 3-D printing applications in end-to-end running shoe production. Given the level of customization required to truly create bespoke products for consumers at the point-of-sale, I do wonder how cost-effective this model can ever be. Can companies like Brooks pass-through the incremental cost to consumers? To what extent would competitors such as Nike, Adidas, etc. capitalize on Brooks’ higher price points if so? And given their scale, what stops larger shoe manufacturers from rolling out these end-to-end capabilities while absorbing the incremental cost of customization in order to cannibalize Brooks’ market share?

  9. Thanks for the post! It seems that compared to some other shoe companies (Nike, Adidas) that others have posted about, Brooks is somewhat behind the 3D printing game. It will be interesting to see how a lagging mover in the custom shoe market will be able to maintain its place in the running shoe market. Obviously, Brooks has found that niche as being a great shoe to go for custom soles, but could Nike or Adidas displace them if they develop marketable 3D technology faster than Brooks does? I would see this as a clear competitive threat, and Brooks should focus on developing these technologies, most likely in conjunction with an experienced third party, so that they can protect their brand going into the future. The question is immediacy: does Brooks have to go towards AM now, or is waiting five or ten years for the technology to become more efficient possible?

  10. I love this application! I look forward to trying out the product if it is in my price range. I wonder if we should be concerned about the long term health of runners using the shoe. Have there been studies done on how a person’s gait is improved or worsened over time with the custom shoe? While it might make one runner’s posture improve, I worry that for others it may exacerbate issues that they already have.

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