The business of making and selling clothes has waste built right into the process: Rolls of fabric have patterns cut out of them, creating unusable scraps; retailers must guess what will be popular and how many units will sell, and whatever doesn't move becomes clearance. That results in slashed price tags, eroding profits.
A research project out of Germany involving Adidas, academics, industrial partners and with the support of the German government is looking to tackle this problem. For the past few months they've been testing an Adidas-branded pop-up shop in Berlin where customers come in, get a body scan and "design" their own sweater by manipulating patterns. An industrial knitting machine located on-site then spits the sweater out.
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Here's what the process looks like in action:
The process is not immediate, as shown in the video, nor does the machine do all of the work; human hands finish the sweater, then wash and dry it on-site. Real-life elapsed time is about four hours.
Still, four hours is a lot faster than the months of lead time required to source sweaters the conventional way, and that's what's got Adidas interested. "Fast fashion" is tricky to execute, and making clothes on-demand obviates the clearance problem. According to Reuters,
Adidas wants 50 percent of its products to be made in a faster time frame by 2020, double the rate in 2016, which it expects will increase the proportion of products sold at full price to 70 percent from less than half now.
"If we can give the consumer what they want, where they want it, when they want it, we can decrease risk ... at the moment we are guessing what might be popular," Adidas brand chief Eric Liedtke told investors last week.
The trial run, which just wrapped last week, is called "Knit for You." The company is now evaluating the results and deciding whether or not to pursue this strategy.
Sneakers, as we saw, are fiendishly complicated to manufacture. But should Adidas pursue on-demand wholeheartedly it's not difficult to imagine, with the design of clever machines, made-to-order, while-you-wait sneakers in our future.