After three decades, Adidas has brought its shoe production back to Germany. The sportswear giant has opened a “Speed Factory” facility in Asbach (or a “Hochgeschwindigkeitsfabrich” for Fashionista’s German speakers), enabling the company to make fully customised shoes at an incredibly fast speed – one pair can be made in approximately five hours.

Adidas currently outsources the majority of its production to China and other countries in Asia, where it manufactures around 300 million pairs of shoes yearly, mostly by hand. In the company’s current factories, it can take several weeks to complete a pair of trainers.

So what is so different about the Speed Factory? Why is the Speed Factory so speedy? Answer: it is staffed by robots. Does this foretell the doom of humankind? Fashionista takes a closer look.

According to the Financial Times, the Speed Factory consists of a small hall, with approximately half a dozen robots set up across two production lines: one making soles, the other making the upper part of the shoe, enabling the trainers to be made in five hours. Although the plan was to finish only 500 prototypes in 2016, according to the Guardian, Adidas plans to open its second robot-staffed manufacturing operation in Atlanta this year and projects that this factory will produce 50,000 pairs of shoes in the second half of the year. In a couple of years Adidas says, if all goes to plan, its robot-staffed plants will produce a million pairs annually.

Currently, it typically takes 18 months for Adidas to develop and sell a new style of trainers which, in a market that is sensitive to trends, is a long time. Mr Hainer (ex-chief executive of Adidas) has said that the day that a pair of trainers can be made on demand by a robot in a sports shop, is edging closer.

So, are robots taking over the workforce? With worker shortages and rising wages in China, and robots making things more quickly and cheaply than humans, it will not be surprising if soon there are a lot more than two Speed Factories, thus reducing the need for employees in the production lines. Further it is estimated, by the consultancy BCG, that by 2025 advanced robots will boost productivity by as much as 30 per cent in many industries, with total labour costs reduced by 18 per cent in countries such as the US, China and Germany. In countries with a strong trade union or workforce council presence, this could be an issue ripe for industrial dispute.

However, the impact on overall margins from the Speed Factories is currently minimal and, according to the Financial Times, the Speed Factories are not intended to supplant Adidas’ production in Asia. Despite this, Mr Hainer believes that there is still huge potential: “If you look at the car industry and what they do with robots, in the shoe industry, we are just at the beginning,” he says. “But the train has left the station.”

By: Amy Chilver
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