Recoding the Run

Illustrations by Samuel Burgess-Johnson   Here’s one thing about lasers: They can cut almost anything. They can navigate an elaborate preprogrammed map of twists and turns, following a “digital recipe” down to the micron. And in doing so, they have radically optimized manufacturing.

It follows that Nike would take interest in such a technology. As part of its Manufacturing Revolution initiative, the company is constantly looking for ways to reduce the amount of material and labor needed to make high-performance, customized footwear and speed the delivery of its products to all kinds of athletes. Laser-cutting could scale down the amount of equipment needed to create the 20 to 30 parts of a typical shoe. Currently, if a shoe comes in 10 sizes, the standard production involves a multitude of various tools for crafting at least 200 different pieces for each shoe.

But here’s another thing about lasers: As they cut, the beams mix with oxygen to leave burnt edges on soft fabrics. And Nike works with a lot with soft fabrics. “The team at Nike said, ‘No, you can’t do that. It doesn’t work. We tried it,’” says Mike Dennison, president of the Consumer Technologies Group at Flex, “and then they’d come in and see us making it work, and they were just blown away.”

British Heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson

British Heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson

Engineers and chemists at Flex, a supply chain innovator specializing in manufacturing and computer hardware, invented a process whereby any material, soft or hard, can be neatly laser-cut into whatever pattern is needed, when it’s needed, right on the factory floor. “We are perfecting a process that allows precision cutting without any burning of the material in the process,” says Tom Fletcher, SVP of the Consumer Technologies Group at Flex. “We needed to develop a laser-cutting system that allows us to create a very flexible capability that can really perform across the range of materials and products required for this type of industry.

Dennison thinks it’s only a matter of time before laser-cutting replaces manual cutting in mainstream manufacturing. “It’s like Paul Bunyan and the chainsaw, right?” he says. “At some point the chainsaw will win, and that’s the laser cutter.”

Beyond the lasers themselves, Flex has developed a new way to get cloth to the cutting machines. In the past, bolts of fabric had to be moved, unfurled, cut up, then pulled off the factory line and moved elsewhere. Flex’s alternative: a roboticized bolt holder that automatically feeds the line based on a specific shoe model and size.

Typically, a factory will do a big run of one shoe size at a time. But, in addition to the cutting itself, using laser cutters allows for much greater flexibility. “Instead of having all the materials stored in a back warehouse and having a team of people use big hydraulic presses and tools that cut out pattern pieces for footwear, they roll out this big laser cutter, they put the material in it, and they cut the material for the size 9, and then for the size 14, and then for the size 13, and it’s all digital,” says Eric Sprunk, chief operating officer at Nike. “You don’t have to change a die ; it’s just a laser. It’s great; it’s going to be a huge game changer.”

The laser and bolt holder are just two of several innovations that Flex has developed in conjunction with Nike. Because it doesn’t have a background in footwear, Flex designated a team that would learn in great detail what went into making a shoe and begin experimenting with techniques that could improve quality. “We went on Nike.com and ordered about 50 different pairs of shoes with the intention of literally taking them apart and seeing how they were made,” Fletcher says. “I even got a call from Beaverton, Oregon, from Nike.com, asking, ‘Mr. Fletcher, do you actually want to order 50 different pairs of shoes?’ And I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I do.’”

Following in the Footsteps of an Innovator

In ripping the shoes apart, Flex was actually retracing the path of Nike Cofounder Bill Bowerman, the veteran track-and-field coach who began his quest to build a lighter, more comfortable athletic shoe in the late 1950s by deconstructing existing ones with a band saw, then scrutinizing their anatomy. By shaving ounces off runners’ shoes, he could shave seconds off their time.

The coach’s obsession with making performance-enhancing shoes to help athletes perform at their best led him to cobble many prototypes by hand, including a pair for Phil Knight, then a student track-and-field athlete at the University of Oregon. Knight wasn’t wearing the shoes for long before his teammate Otis Davis appropriated them. Davis later won a gold medal in the 400 meters at the 1960 Olympic Games.

Bowerman continued to customize shoes for his runners. He’d begin by outlining their feet, measuring their widths, and jotting down anatomical peculiarities (a long heel, say, or slim ankle). He’d test dozens of different materials in search of the perfect strong, lightweight, and flexible substance. As he approached his own exacting standards, he sought a partnership with a U.S. footwear manufacturer, but there were no takers. In a 1960 letter to a Portland, Oregon, company requesting steel for spikes, Bowerman wrote, “I don’t think there is any question, certainly in my own mind there is not, that I now have the best shoe in the world—if I could just find some good American shoemaker to make it.”

By 1964, Bowerman and Knight teamed up to found Blue Ribbon Sports, a footwear company using athlete insights to design customized shoes, which would ultimately become Nike as we know it today. Knight had forged an agreement with the Japanese company Onitsuka Tiger in 1962 to import and sell their shoes in the western U.S., but it took more than a year for Onitsuka to deliver the first set of samples. Bowerman traveled to Tokyo for the 1964 Olympic Games and met with Onitsuka’s founder and CEO, the late Kihachiro Onitsuka, sketched out his vision for footwear, and toured its factories to study the cutting and stitching machines. Several years later, he designed his first hit, the Tiger Cortez, a training shoe for the long-distance runner that introduced the concept of a full-length cushiony midsole, soft sponge rubber in the forefoot and top of the heel, hard sponge rubber in the middle of the heel, and a firm rubber outsole. Knight and Bowerman began producing shoes under the Nike brand in 1971, introducing their Cortez design in 1972.

Bowerman’s next invention was a shoe that had traction on all surfaces without spikes. His eureka moment arrived in 1970 while eating waffles for breakfast. As he looked at the pools of syrup that had collected in the depressions of his waffle, he wondered if he reversed the pattern, would the raised nubs provide the traction he was after. He tested his theory by pouring melted urethane, instead of batter, into the family waffle iron. The first attempt flopped: He forgot to apply an anti-stick agent, and the iron glued shut. But he continued his trials, eventually fashioning a gridded, grippy pattern out of rubber. The iconic Waffle Trainer finally arrived in 1974, made with the signature studded, hand-cut sole and nylon uppers imported from Japan. Nike still sells a version of the shoe.

Nike calls Bowerman its “original innovator,” who paved the way for designers to imagine technological innovations such as Flyknit uppers and Free articulated outsoles. Flex is working with Nike to innovate how the next generation of products will be manufactured. “It’s really about how do we make the product,” Sprunk says. “So instead of focusing on where we’re going to make a product in the future, we want to spend just as much time on how we will make it, and from what material. Then the result of that, hopefully, is to make products closer to our consumer markets.”

Nike subscribes to the concept of lean manufacturing, a system developed by Toyota in postwar Japan that reduces manufacturing waste. The philosophy targets all kinds of waste—from material to cost to time lost with inefficient tools or labor methods. Sprunk has taken steps to reduce complexity where it makes sense. In the past two years, Nike has cut the number of active materials by more than 30%, deepening and elevating its relationships with its remaining suppliers.

As part of its Manufacturing Revolution initiative, Nike will deploy dozens of projects across its source base aimed at reducing labor costs, improving quality, and enhancing both the performance and aesthetic of products by the end of fiscal year 2016. In one such project, Nike’s engineers have figured out how to use robotics to automate the process of painting a sneaker’s midsole. At Nike’s 2015 investor meeting, Sprunk described the old method, which “literally required applying tape to ensure paint only goes where you want it, much like if you were painting your living room. It’s wasteful and it’s slow.” The new technique doesn’t require tape but instead “enables new aesthetic paint effects that cannot be achieved by hand,” he said. The company has also brought 3-D-printed traction plates into football shoes with the Vapor Laser Talon cleat, in 2014, and it’s exploring broader uses of 3-D printing to make cushioning that's tailored to an athlete's foot.

Nike has a culture much like ours in terms of collaboration and risk taking… They look at what the future could be and what they could be doing, Dennison says.

As Nike’s partner, Flex is pushing the sportswear maker’s capabilities further into the future. Sprunk says that after only six months into the partnership, Flex had delivered on some of that promise. “Flex has already brought some really great innovative ideas for how to do things differently, helped us rethink some processes, and asked us, ‘Why do you do it that way? Have you thought about doing it this way?’”

“It’s pretty phenomenal,” Sprunk says. “Laser-cutting is a good example of a problem that has existed in our industry for two decades. Flex had been working with us for six months, and they had a great solution.”

Flex’s relationship with Nike began with the FuelBand, a fitness tracker that debuted in 2012. Flex helped develop the wristband’s hardware. Through the project, the two companies discovered some parallel values. “Nike has a culture much like ours in terms of collaboration and risk taking,” Dennison says. “They don’t look at their competition and say, ‘Okay, here’s how the competition’s doing relative to us.’ They look at what the future could be and what they could be doing. They say, ‘We are going to gauge our successes against our own capabilities and our own potential.’”

Nike discontinued production of the FuelBand in 2014. But it retained its ties to Flex. So when Nike executives created a strategy to accelerate the company’s approach to its supply chain through innovation and automation, Flex was a top candidate for the job, in spite of—or perhaps because of—its lack of experience in manufacturing footwear. In choosing Flex, Sprunk says, “We decided that we wanted to go outside of our industry because, frankly, we work with the best-in-class footwear manufacturers in the world, but we felt we needed an accelerant or a catalyst to help us think differently as an industry.” Leveraging laser-cutting technology is just one of the ways Flex is rethinking footwear. Says Sprunk: “It's going to solve some problems that we haven’t been able to solve as an industry, and it validates exactly why we wanted to bring somebody like Flex into this space.”

Before it could act as a catalyst, though, Flex needed to study how Nike shoes had been made for the past 50 years. A Flex team embedded itself with one of Nike’s manufacturing partners to learn the craft, ask questions, and bring to bear its outsider perspective on improving tried-and-true factory practices, much as Bowerman did when he toured Onitsuka’s factories in Japan. “That partner has told me personally that they have been really impressed with the speed at which Flex has gotten the capability to make footwear,” Sprunk says.

Flex has reverse-engineered some shoes and engaged in some Bowerman-style trial and error, too. One major challenge for Flex: Unlike hardware, soft materials don’t always stay in place. Fabric also doesn't necessarily look or behave exactly the same from one batch to the next. "We've learned, through years of practice, how to compensate for those natural variations, but an automated process can’t immediately adjust for them," Fletcher says. “We were trying to replicate what a craftsman does with those years of experience. If you look at the 350 years of shoemaking, the craftsmanship is really about making a shoe look and feel consistent, and with Nike, of course, the shoe has to perform for the world’s best athletes.”

To arrive at a solution, the Flex team needed to test how different materials, threads, and even colors respond to automation, nailing down each of its “recipes” as it went along. The team also had to quantify precisely such things as the amount of glue to use between the upper and midsole to achieve optimal bond strength. Glue thickness is a critical parameter because it gives a sneaker its integrity and is one factor that affects wear and tear. Glue application, now done by hand, is a process that stands to benefit from automation. Once glue is applied with the precision of a machine, the chance of accidentally using too much is eliminated.

Flex couldn’t figure out the right amount of glue just from observing the manufacturing process. “There are elements of embedded knowledge that take place in manual factories,” Fletcher says. “Everybody just kind of knows that if I put on kind of this much, then I get a good product. When you’re dealing with an automated solution, you have to know what the number is.” Flex eventually arrived at the perfect thickness for its cementing machine. “To be able to measure that perfect thickness in a manual process is almost impossible,” he says.

Order of One

State of the art machinery will allow Nike to meet demand, innovate the way in which footwear is made, and grow by making more shoes faster. It will also allow the company to produce personalized sneakers while reducing the wait time. Speed combined with customization and greater innovation will be one of the strategies that will help the brand reach its target of $50 billion by the end of fiscal year 2020, an increase from $30 billion in fiscal year 2015.

It’s pretty phenomenal. Laser-cutting is a good example of a problem that has existed in our industry for two decades. Flex had been working with us for six months, and they had a great solution, says Sprunk.

Nike already lets consumers customize select sneakers through its NikeID website, where you can choose between various graphic prints and colors, including adding your name or a personalized message.

Once you place your order, however, it can take up to four weeks for your special kicks to travel from the factory to your door. Sprunk admits that in a digital age when people communicate instantaneously, that long lag can be a turnoff.

Nike wants to slash the wait time for custom orders from weeks to days. To do that, it is working with Flex to develop efficient methods for making orders of one, rather than 1,000—something its factory partners already do well. That’s where a laser cutter comes in. The machine can go from cutting size 13 pieces to size 7 pieces without interrupting the factory-line flow, bringing Nike closer to its goal of faster turnarounds for custom orders. “We think that unlocks a lot of growth,” Sprunk says. “It’s just a very different way to think about the supply chain that our industry has built over 50 years, where the order goes for a thousand pairs of size 9’s, and they ship in a container to a warehouse to be distributed to a store where you can buy one if you like the color.”

State of the art machinery will allow Nike to meet demand, innovate the way in which footwear is made, and grow by making more shoes faster.

In the near future, Flex plans to add speed and efficiency to the supply chain for Nike’s novel method of knitting a virtually seamless upper from polyester yarn—the innovation behind its Flyknit shoes. Introduced in 2012, after four years in the making, Flyknit employs proprietary machinery and software to weave structure and support into a shoe precisely where athletes need it. The result is flexible and form-fitting, like a sock. Because the structure and support are built into one layer, the Nike Flyknit Racer is ridiculously lightweight: The upper and tongue weigh just 1.2 ounces. The entire shoe is only 5.6 ounces for a men’s size 9, 19% lighter than the Nike Zoom Streak 3, which was worn by the first-, second-, and third-place athletes in the men’s marathon at the 2011 World Championships. Bowerman would be proud.

In many respects, Flyknit is Nike’s lean manufacturing and innovation star. The shoe’s upper doesn’t require the usual cutting, stitching, and gluing of parts so it cuts material usage by up to 20%. Since 2012, Flyknit has helped Nike trim waste by nearly 2 million pounds, or more than the combined weight of three passenger planes, as Sprunk suggested in his Investor Day presentation. And like Flex’s laser-cutting machine, it’s a modern, digital technique for making sneakers: Each shoe is a digital file sent by email directly to a knitting machine. “What goes into the machine is literally a file that can have the size of your foot, where you’d like support, where you have a difference between your left and right foot, etc. That can all go into a file for a specific upper on that shoe,” Sprunk says. The machine can knit 100,000 pairs of the same exact upper, or it can produce a size 7 Nike Free 4.0 Flyknit followed by a size 12 Nike Flyknit Lunar 3.

“That’s a great unlock for us, because it allows us to automate this process to customized orders of one at scale,” he says.

To help restitch Nike’s supply chain, Flex is experimenting with the company’s manufacturing infrastructure to introduce other innovations while speeding up the process. Flex hasn’t disclosed what those tweaks will be, but they could involve sensors embedded in equipment to feed back data that could be used to optimize the whole operation. “As soon as you start to leave that sewing technology, you get to a place where automation, different types of robotics, different types of manufacturing make sense,” Dennison says.

To be clear, traditional manufacturing methods, and the factories that use them, continue to be an essential part of Nike’s supply chain. These factories will benefit massively from the Flex partnership, too, as learnings and innovations are rolled out across Nike’s global sourcing base.

Early on, Flex sent a small team to Asia to study how Nike’s shoes were being made in factories. “The amount of craftsmanship that is associated with a manually built shoe was something we needed to experience firsthand,” says Flex’s Fletcher. After observing the process, Flex brought in manual equipment to replicate the factory setup at its headquarters, in Milpitas, California. Here, Flex employees are researching how sneakers have been made for 50 years in order to devise a tech-infused way to construct shoes in the future. Says Sprunk: “This is a 10-step journey and we’re just starting with Flyknit.”

More recently, Nike made a version of the self-lacing sneakers depicted in Back to the Future a reality. (The movie’s original shoe was designed by Nike’s legendary Tinker Hatfield.) Dubbed the Nike Mag, the sneakers have an individually responsive lacing system that senses the wearer's motion to provide adaptive on-demand comfort and support. They were a limited release available only through auction, with the proceeds going to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. But it’s conceivable that some version of the shoe could become available in the future as Nike continues to test the technology across multiple sports.

As Nike and Flex explore the next phase of the Manufacturing Revolution initiative, the opportunities for how the sportswear giant designs and ultimately makes its products for athletes around the world are exponential. Says Sprunk: “When you combine the innovation in manufacturing of the product with the innovation in the design and engineering of a product, there’s a compounding effect—innovation squared if you will.”