Some of the latest advances in robotics appear almost like science fiction, and yet they have started to impact many aspects of sporting goods production – from the digitalization and connectivity of footwear and apparel to the management of human resources in factories and the geography of manufacturing.

This was the main topic of discussion at the fourth Manufacturers' Forum organized by the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI). It brought together about 200 people in Taichung last month to study the multi-faceted transformation brought about by digitalization, technology and robotics, over two days of fast-paced and often captivating presentations.

The potentially disruptive aspect of the transformation was the subject of a recent cover of Business Weekly, a Taiwanese magazine, referring to the partnership between Nike and Flex, as the sporting goods giant apparently turned to this specialist in supply chain automation and hardware electronics to build an automated footwear production line. Another example is the Adidas Speedfactory, an automated footwear production plant in Germany (another is to come in Atlanta) to respond more rapidly to local consumer demand. The U.S. presidential election, in which both leading candidates spoke out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, made such discussions all the more topical.

Edwin Keh, from the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel, focused on the opportunities offered by the latest technologies in the supply chain for apparel. He pointed out that the recent years have seen a shift in the perception of the supply chain, from a cost center to a competitive advantage.

Keh's examples included Zara, the Spanish fast fashion retailer, which showed higher production costs and lower average retail prices than one of its competitors, yet made higher margins due to supply chain efficiency. Another striking example was the strategy of General Motors to have two car models for the U.S. market made in China. It remains to be seen if the future of the supply chain will be driven by specialists taking the latest technology on board, or by technology companies moving into the sports industry, Keh said, in a remark made all the more relevant by the partnership between Nike and Flex.

Christian Decker, chief executive at Desma, a German supplier of injection moulding machines and other automated equipment used for shoe production, explained that the industry has been shifting toward smaller lot sizes, declining warehouse inventories, growing product variation and a sharp rise in consumer influence. It has thus been working on a production concept that enables consumers to order and have shoes manufactured on the spot. The production module for the Desma Wrap, a concept shoe with three injected layers, is meant to fit in an urban location and it can turn out two pairs per minute. Consumers could have “freshly baked shoes” of their choice made for them while they have a (very) quick coffee in a New York store.

Technology is allowing manufacturers to take advantage of entirely new materials as well. Due to scarcity or environmental reasons, some of the materials currently used in sporting goods production may no longer be available on the same scale in the future. The alternatives discussed at the forum included the use of sand, bridal dresses made out of food waste, or the ability to “grow” shoes (and this was just before Adidas announced its biodegradable shoe).

Alison Starr, from the National Composites Centre in the U.K., described the use of collaborating robots to make the production of composite components all the more efficient. In one of her examples, the cost of a component was cut by 20 percent as the robots reduced the amount of materials used, while another customer sharply increased its capacity through the use of lighter materials handled by a new robot head. Materials should become increasingly important in the years ahead as a proportion of product cost, she explained.

The example of the car industry has recurrently been cited in previous editions of the Manufacturers' Forum, and this year again it was on the agenda with a visit to Mobiletron, a company in Taichung that specializes in automotive electronics. The company has been working on the “internet of vehicles,” providing on-board connection and an all-round monitor. Its plant in Taichung includes some highly automated lines, as well as an integrated platform for data, voice and video connection.

Automation requires adjustments in human resource management, argued Tyler Lyman, chief executive of Micro Benefits. He said that fear among the employees is a major challenge in the process of automation, causing unrest as well as an increased number of departures. Lyman referred to a Nike study, apparently estimating the cost of the departure of a front-line worker at $620. He advocates training to identify the workers who have the skill to move forward with automation, and training of staff to make sure they remain engaged – potentially providing them will skills to move on to other industries. Many employees regard collaborative robots (“cobots”) as an opportunity to learn.

Training programs are available from partners such as Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a non-profit organization that works toward sustainable business strategies. As explained by Jeremy Prepscius, vice president of Asia-Pacific at BSR, such training has helped thousands of (predominantly female) workers to learn new skills. Prepscius himself previously spent about ten years at Nike and several leading sports companies are taking part in programs such as Women in Factories, which seek to empower women and the factories where they work as agents of sustainable change. 

Other contributions were already covered in our preview of the forum, such as the use of data to support the efficiency of automation, and the development of Clim8, working on technology that enables apparel to track the wearer's activity and adjust to the optimal temperature. The two days formed a well-rounded program focusing on technology, automation and robotics, which should be in focus again next year: The WFSGI has teamed up with Messe München and Ispo Academy to organize the fifth Manufacturers' Forum around the topic of cross industries and during Productronica, a trade fair for electronics development and production. The forum will be held in Munich on Nov. 14-15, 2017. Separately, the WFSGI also confirmed that it was organizing a World Cycling Forum on June 7-8 in Porto, Portugal, in partnership with Bike Europe. The provisional topic is “Consumer centricity and increasing speed to market.”