Marco Kormann Imparts How adidas Separates the 3D Printing Hype from Reality.
As a Senior Development Engineer for adidas AG in Germany, Marco Kormann presented at the Materialise World Conference last week. Representing such a huge — and global — sporting goods brand, I was really interested to get his take on how adidas really engages with 3D printing. There were many familiar themes throughout the presentation — invaluable for prototyping and concept development; limitations of process and materials; etc — but it was actually an engaging and very interesting half hour. 3D printing aside, I was genuinely fascinated to learn about the origins of adidas, of which I had no idea previously.
It turns out that prior to adidas being founded in the late 1940s by Adolf (Adi) Dassler in Herzogenaurach in Bavaria, Germany; he and his brother, Rudolf, worked together designing and producing shoes. However, after a falling out the two brothers went their separate ways, which saw Adolf establish adidas and Rudolf establish Puma. Both companies still operate their headquarter facilities out of Herzogenaurach, a very small German town, on opposite sides of the river. As I sat there a moment, amused at the peculiarities of human nature and wondering if they ever reconciled, all I could picture was the Twix advert. For anyone outside the UK that has no idea what I am on about, check this out.
An interesting aside, I thought, but back to the subject at hand. Adidas is currently the #2 company in the sporting goods industry. Marco did not reference who was number one, naturally. Not being big on sports or sports wear (the sum total of my knowledge comes via husband and son and what they will and will not wear) I was wondering if Nike or Reebok was number 1, when Marco did impart that adidas owns Reebok (did not know that!) as well as golfing brand Taylor Made among others. Nike it is then!
As you would expect probably expect, adidas is not overly happy with the number 2 spot. As Marco summed up his intro, he said: “we’re always aiming for number 1.”
Consistently producing new sporting goods sounds frenetic to say the least. It has to be fast as the brands bring out new products every six months. With constant innovation, the product life cycles demand that the company is always looking ahead and working with products and materials that can work fast. After holding numerous positions across the organisation, Marco himself has a
Mechanical Engingeering background and currently works in the future engineering division, where he is well-placed to understand the company’s utilisation of 3D printing — now and with one eye on the future.
Upfront from the outset Marco stated clearly that adidas’ current commercial offering includes very few 3D printed parts and/or products, citing that compared with traditional manufacturing methods 3D printing processes cannot compete on the volumes of products produced right now. He even went so far as to say it was unlikely to be used for production in the next five years.
Obviously, he did also cite the enabling benefits of 3D printing that adidas is interested in, namely customisation / personalisation; new product opportunities and business models (for example, insoles); flexibility in terms of performance benefits from anatomical adaptation; and as a tooling and production aid.
Adidas does, for sure, use 3D printing for its oldest and most embedded application — product innovation. For developing prototype iterations of new concepts quickly, 3D printing is a “no-brainer” that offers extremely short lead times and the ability to reduce stock).
The company is more than aware of the customisation opportunities that 3D printing offers its customers and, according to Marco, believes that this is “a real breakthrough.” However, right now the costs are inhibitive for utilising it for mainstream products and it is currently only focused on elite athletes in this regard. In the future though, when costs should surely come down, it should be for everyone.
Furthermore, adidas is also considering how 3D printing technology permits flexible and local production capabilities. Again, the time is not right and the company continues to manufacture in a centralised way in the Far East. Marco believe “this may change in the future.”
Marco went on to highlight some of the other limitations of 3D printing processes, specifically with regard to the high impact and stresses that many adidas products have to undergo as well as rough environmental conditions. He imparted that material characterisation for additive manufacturing, process characterisation and build repeatability/quality control were all issues that have yet to be fully resolved when scaling up use for high volumes of products.
It was gratifying to hear Marco say, as he summarised, that he believes that implementation of 3D printing across the sporting industry today is largely for prototypes — and to produce nice marketing stories for brands and events.
But, in terms of the future, he is very optimistic. To get there though, research must be focused on improving materials; overcoming limitations in automated quality control; and automated part finishing as well as reduced costs.