Project Management Institute

Sole Purpose

Adidas is Setting the Pace with Cutting-Edge Design Techniques

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In its ongoing mission to transform how athletic shoes are made, Adidas’ Futurecraft R&D lab has produced innovations ranging from a 3D-printed midsole to its first running shoe designed to be fully recyclable. The German incubator’s latest project is a shoe designed and made by bots so it can be tailored for distinct running profiles.

Adidas unveiled the Strung prototype in October and plans to scale production in 2021. Here’s how a cross-functional team of designers, engineers and data scientists are working to create a better fit that speeds up production and dramatically cuts waste.

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IMAGES COURTESY OF ADIDAS. AT RIGHT, IMAGE COURTESY OF FOSTER + PARTNERS

MACHINE LEARNING

Past Futurecraft projects helped Adidas develop and refine the automated design and build process. For instance, the 4D project in 2017, for which Adidas began creating 3D-printed midsoles, helped the Strung team learn how the printed shapes of polymer lattices could create varying levels of support and bounce—integrating that data and lessons learned into software that could move the design process forward.

The team also sought external help. Strung soles are produced in partnership with Carbon, a manufacturer of 3D-printing devices, using a modified version of traditional 3D printing called digital light synthesis. The process uses ultraviolet light to cure liquid plastic resin and create a smoother and more consistent finish than traditional 3D-printed parts.

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DATA-DRIVEN DESIGN

The team captured biometric data from top athletes in order to design an upper that would complement the unique mechanics of top runners—those who can cover a mile in 5 minutes, 30 seconds or less. By analyzing that data, the software helps determine where the shoe needs to flex and where it needs to offer greater support. The computer then instructs the robot on how to construct the shoe.

“We saw an opportunity to hyperoptimize a solution for fast runners, and we just took it to the extreme,” Adidas innovation designer Andrea Nieto said in an Adidas video.

TRIAL RUN

Adidas partnered with design firm Kram/Weisshaar to develop an algorithm that optimizes the pattern and placement of each thread. The mid-foot area, for example, needs little support, so that section’s thread pattern is sparse. Relying on an algorithm allowed the team to quickly test new designs with varying thread positioning—and produce shoes at scale.

HASTE WITHOUT WASTE

The robot builds the shoe, binding several different colors and types of thread—a process that eliminates excess materials that normally go to waste during traditional manufacturing methods. It also speeds up production, which creates cost efficiencies. The robot can assemble a Strung concept shoe upper in about 20 minutes. Adidas estimates fewer than 10 machines will be needed to mass-produce the shoe.

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