Robot Takeover of Apparel Production
by Susanna Koelblin

First large scale shoe robot factory unveiled: Adidas will use machines in Germany instead of humans in Asia to make shoes.

Adidas, the German maker of sportswear, has announced it will start marketing its first series of shoes manufactured by robots in Germany starting in 2017. More than 20 years after it ceased production activities in Germany and moved them to Asia, Adidas unveiled the group’s new prototype “Speedfactory” in Germany. As of this year, the factory will begin large-scale production. What’s more, Adidas will also open a second Speedfactory in the U.S. in 2017, followed by more in Western Europe. According to the company, the German and American plants will, in the “mid-term,” each scale up to producing half a million pairs of shoes per year.

Does this pose a threat to Adidas’s traditional manufacturing base in China, Indonesia and Vietnam? After all, labor in the region is becoming less cheap these days, and manufacturers are increasingly turning to robots. The current model in the apparel industry is very much based on sourcing products from countries where consumers are typically not based. In the longer term, Adidas could even produce the shirts of Germany’s national football team in its home country. The shoes made in Germany would sell at a similar price to those produced in Asia, where Adidas employs around one million workers. Arch-rival Nike is also developing its robot-operated factory.

This development in the shoe area is just the beginning and will be leveraged to the apparel industry as well.

Adidas recently unveiled the first silhouette produced by its Speedfactory facility, the Futurecraft M.F.G. (or Made for Germany)

Put aside for a moment how moving jobs back to a country with high costs gives companies an incentive to automate. There’s a bigger issue: After displacing western manufacturing workers, robots are poised to do the same in developing economies. It will be hard to re-shore jobs that no longer exist. It took 50 years for the world
to install the first million industrial robots. The next million will take only eight years. Importantly, much of the recent growth happened particularly in China, which has an aging population and where wages have risen…

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