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New Balance Running & Outdoor VP on sustainability, customisation and 3D printing

In the wake of New Balance’s sponsorship of the London Marathon, WGSN sat down with Tom Carleo, VP of Running & Outdoor at New Balance, to talk the future of athletic footwear – from sustainability, to customisation and 3-d printing.

 

 

Thinking about developments such as automation and 3-D printing technology, we’re seeing huge shifts in manufacturing techniques and processes. What’s new and next for New Balance in this space?

 

At New Balance, we have a really unique position in manufacturing. Unlike any of our competitors, when everything moved into contracted, third party Asia-based manufacturing  (we were part of that as well), we continued to have three very active factories in the state of Maine, two in Massachusetts and we’re very proud of the one that we have here in the UK. It reflects our company values; we believe that manufacturing should be a part of a company that makes stuff.

For years, we’ve been working on our approach to innovation and manufacturing. We’re working with a lot of robotic-type programmes that need to be kept under-wraps, but our manufacturing lines are already quite innovative. At employee-level, we have a very cool system that was put in place about 10 years ago, where the employees that manufacture the product are integrated into the problem-solving and the solution-finding – everything from factory waste to efficiencies.

This means that, at any point in time, members of a group can realise how a station could work better, so we’ve really involved the manufacturing workers in shaping the process.

 

 

That’s sounds like a very people-oriented approach, which is interesting given the fear surrounding automation and robots! Do you think a balance of technology plus people will be the key to success in the future?

 

I absolutely do. We’re even seeing this in the design process, which ultimately feeds all of this. We’ve been working very closely with software packages for the last few years, with what we call internally ‘a data-to-design process’. It’s where we’re able to have the human hand ultimately drive the project, assisted along the way by software programs.

That has fed a lot of what we are doing with our prototyping around 3-D printing. In fact, it’s what led us to our signature technology called Fresh Foam. A designer had been playing around with how the data could almost let the software design a 3-D printed shoe, and when it was presented to me and some others, it was so cool yet so futuristic, we knew it would take time to commercialise the use of the 3-D printing. So, we asked the question, ‘what if this same thought went into conventional moulding, CNC moulding? What would the outcome be?’ Like all great designers, he was ahead of us, dug into his bag and pulled out a prototype he had worked on.

We have a team of people, six fully-dedicated 3-D printing engineers and a management group that are working on it. Again, I have to keep much of it confidential, but I will say that the notion of customization and 3-D printing is something that’s very high on our radar.

 

The shift towards customisation and personalisation only seems to be going one way, especially in terms of being able to make products on demand. Obviously this feeds into the consumer-expectation for brands to be more sustainably-minded if they can avoid producing excess inventory. Is that something that’s high on your agenda at New Balance?

 

Absolutely. To me, there are three big elements in terms of how 3-D printing can affect our industry. One of them is the customization piece. So in the ideal world, somebody can either have a visual that they really want, or more importantly, something functional, that can be addressed and manufactured just for them. The second piece, is that there are things you can do with 3-D printing that, from a draft angle perspective, you can’t do with conventional moulding. But, for me, the future, is the ability – even at a customer level – to build product so that there’s not an inventory back-up of product.

We’re definitely going to continue to respectfully learn from what others are doing. I think that some of the product that’s being made is very cool, and if you’re a shoe-geek or a tech-geek you think ‘wow’, but I think the general consumer might be saying ‘so what?’  We’re going to continue to figure out how the personalisation to peoples biomechanical or visual needs can be addressed, because that’s where I think there’s an answer to that ‘so what?’

 

On sustainability, what’s your approach with regards to materials development? Again, this is an area in which we are seeing consumers expectations becoming more and more sophisticated.

 

I think the real positive about the world we live in today is that you can’t be in this business if you don’t have sustainability as part of how you build stuff.

In my opinion, it’s not just about having a line of product that’s more sustainable than others – it’s about being fully integrated. I believe in being 2% more sustainable in everything you do, versus having ‘here’s my 80% more sustainable than everything else product.’

We do have a group 100% dedicated to the sustainability initiative. Our head of future engineering for materials across both footwear and apparel comes from that background, we hired her in the last year to come in and just make sure that not only that every vendor we work with is compliant, but that we are working with vendors that are pushing the limits of what can be done.

We have one designer who’s been working with organic matter for some 5 or 6 years. He’s even working with growing some things in the office, and we are hyper involved with several third-parties who do similar things.

And, as I mentioned on the waste point, we have 3-D printing right in my office. So the designer has a concept and 36 or 48 hours later, we’re looking at it. Compare that to the time spent and, frankly, the air freight spent, on getting something built in Asia and brought back to us. That in itself has had an impact. The more you can do where you are – watching that footprint that’s associated with building the product – is exciting.

 

Lastly, we’ve seen running steadily gain in popularity. What do you think the future of running as a hobby is going to be in the next 5-10 years?

 

Right now, our line is broken into a few categories and one of those categories is what we’re calling Fuel. It’s a little bit of an umbrella name for the notion of getting faster and fueling your activity. One of the things that we feel is super-important – and I’ve talked a lot about this in relation to our relationship with the London Marathon and our relationship with athletes – is that we feel like our job is to put energy back into the sport. Some people and data will tell you it’s getting slower, people are getting less competitive, our job is not to say, ‘ok, that’s where the markets going, let’s make slower products’. Our job is to put energy into it and try to make it faster.

In the old days, a racing product was only for the elite. Our thinking and our planning is that everybody should be in the fastest shoe that they can be in, no matter their version of fast. From a commercial perspective, why is it that elite athlete owns 2 or 3 shoes for their training, and a non-elite who may need it more than anyone, has that 1 shoe and that’s all they wear? We want to treat everybody like an athlete.

So that’s one piece that’s inspiring a tonne of really fun activities. The designers  go out and aren’t just talking to the elites, they’re out talking to people that are trying to break four hours for a marathon. Considering everyone has given the designers some really cool platforms to design from.

We’re proud of the design element of our business –  and building a culture and a facility and a flexibility that get the youngest of designers to want to be a part of what we do, but also experienced designers from competitors or other industries to be interested, has had fantastic results. Attracting talent, retaining talent, we have a really aggressive internship programme and we’ve been able to net more than a handful of great young talent from that.

The team comes from all walks of life and the reason that’s relevant to this, is this generation are the ones who are teaching me and teaching others what our sustainability platform will look like and really what they think running is going to look like in four or five years, and integrating our apparel and footwear so there’s a fully integrated thought process behind the consumer.

That’s a big part of designing for the future.

 

Want more? Head over to the Footwear section on WGSN.

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