Manufacture returning home, slowly

The Redwood Blog
Published:  16 April, 2014
Mike Redwood

When manufacturing of footwear began to slip away from the developed world at the end of last century a half way stage of bringing in cut uppers, largely from India, became popular for many companies. It seemed sensible as the parts done overseas were the most labour intensive and the process allowed the finishing off and final quality control to be done at the parent plant. 

The rush to lower cost product in the nineties more or less swept this format away and factories closed to such a degree that China was soon making over two thirds of the world's shoes. Peter Mangione, the US footwear expert, then correctly advised us that these big volumes would be hard to displace since they were exceptionally efficient and China had developed the vast majority of the high volume footwear lines in the world.

This sort of big capacity production carries with it high minimum order sizes which now is facing two challenges. First the fast rising Chinese costs means that more cash gets tied up in the long supply lines as goods move round the world and second consumer requirements are making it harder to produce such huge volumes. The concept of mass customisation was first raised by Joseph Pine back in the early 1990s but it looks like it is starting to get a new lease of life. As Pine said..."consumers do not want a wide choice of products, they want the right product" and now that we have more informed consumers the demand for bespoke items is increasing. As a result of all this as companies look at where they might move production as Chinese manufacturing continue to get more difficult "coming home" has started to be an option worth some consideration.

So when Klaus Freese from German footwear machinery makers Desma spoke to the UITIC conference a few years back he was promoting the concept of injection moulding allied with robots as a route to bring manufacturing back to its original locations. While there has been no avalanche in this direction the logic is sound and two companies - Keen in the US and a Hotter in the UK - show how the format might look like. In both cases the companies have returned to the previous half way house and are working from imported cut uppers. For Keen it is still a minority of their sales whereas Hotter appear to be assembling over 1.5 million pairs via this approach. This is an interesting scenario that holds branding, distribution, design and the final stages of manufacturing back in head office and leaves leather supply, cutting and sewing nearer to the main sources of upper leather.

ECCO shoes have shown that there is a lot of innovation possible in this mode of soling technology and this format of working looks likely to drive yet more new ideas and materials with both outsoles and midsoles. The overall industry structure involved with the leather cutting done elsewhere from the final manufacture is not so different from what has been occurring in the automobile upholstery leather business for many years. Perhaps we have seen the start of the next configuration in the leather industry. Not just a half way house but a new format of global working. 

Mike Redwood

mike@internationalleathermaker.com

Follow Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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