How Reebok is Thinking Outside the Mold

By Kelsey Alpaio |  June 1, 2017

The process of manufacturing athletic shoes is shockingly similar for almost every sneaker on the market. And according to Bill McInnis, the Vice President of Reebok’s Future group, it typically involves shaping liquid using a mold.

The problem? Making molds is expensive, labor intensive, and slow. Every piece of a shoe needs to be separately produced, carefully extracted from the mold, and then later assembled. And according to McInnis, that can result in a design and manufacturing process for athletic shoes that stretches to 18 months.

“[18 months] is way too long, particularly for something as simple as athletic shoes,” says McInnis. “We wanted to get a lot more speed, a lot more local, and a lot more custom.”

That was the motivating force behind Reebok Future, one of the innovation/R&D arms within the Canton, Mass. based footwear and apparel company, part of Adidas AG.

“Reebok Future [looks]… 1-2 years out, with a fundamental focus on process,” says McInnis. “They’re not relying on us to make the coolest looking shoe. They’re relying on us to change how we make shoes.”

Two processes that have come out of Reebok Future include the “Liquid Factory,” a variant of 3D printing the company has dubbed 3D drawing, and “Cotton + Corn,” an initiative focused on creating footwear from plant-based, sustainable materials. This first product out of the Liquid Factory was the Reebok Liquid Speed shoe (at left), which sold in a limited run of 300 in late 2016. The shoes cost $189.50, and each pair was individually numbered, tagged, and boxed. The box also boasted a “designed and assembled in the USA” sticker, which McInnis says is rare in the athletic shoe space.

We sat down with McInnis following his session at the Exponential Manufacturing Summit to hear more about how his Reebok Future team generates ideas; passes concepts off to the business units; and thinks about competing in a challenging retail environment.

Benchmarking & External Partnerships

The 20-person Reebok Future team is a mix of engineers, rapid prototypers, designers, and researchers. And according to McInnis, the way they come up with new ideas is an experiment in itself.

“Our ideas tend to be a little more independent,” he says. “Our job is to go out and bump into people from as far outside of our industry as we can find. If we’re working in the traditional factories that we still work with, you tend to eat off the same menu as everyone else, and you end up with product that’s a little different, but not radically different from what everyone else is doing….DuPont Tate & Lyle, for example, is one of our partners on Cotton + Corn. They’ve never been involved in footwear. Or somebody like RAMPF, who is doing the Liquid Factory machinery for us, has never been involved in footwear as well. That’s exactly the type of partners that we want — experts in fields that did not relate to footwear in the past.”

When it comes to creating these types of partnerships, McInnis says it’s a process of understanding exactly what you need and then seeking out the partners that can help you achieve those goals.  For the Liquid Factory, McInnis says ideas emerged from their prototyping experiments.

“We had a caulking gun hooked up to a CNC machine,” he says, referring to a computer-controlled device for carving or sculpting. “And we had it draw a path for us while we pulled the trigger [on the caulking gun]…” Following that experiment, the team settled on polyurethane as the material to use for this “3D drawing” effect, partnering with the German chemical company BASF and Michigan-based RAMPF to take the concept into a short production run.

Passing Ideas to the Business Units

McInnis says that the Reebok Future team generally takes an idea to first prototype and sometimes first release, depending on the the business unit they are working with on a given project.

“There is a handoff, but nothing ceremonial,” says McInnis. “You basically walk everyone through, ‘These are all the capabilities we’ve worked out.’ Often what you find is that when you get some new eyes on it, it gets pushed and pulled in some new areas as well. So it’s not always a super-clean process. Everybody brings their own ideas to the table and you end up with something new and different beyond even what we handed off… With something like Liquid Factory, we did the whole first shoe, and now we’re in the process of bringing in other eyes. We’ll help facilitate how that works, but we’re typically off to something else for most of our day-to-day work. At any given time, we’ve got four to six big projects that we’re working on as a team, and they’re all in various stages of development. So when one gets [handed off], we head down a new track.”

In other projects, McInnis says that a particular business unit may be included in the entirety of the process, such as the “Classics” business unit and the Cotton + Corn initiative.

“Cotton + Corn [shoes] are going to be based on some of our classic profiles to start,” he says. “We go right to the Classics business unit and sit with them and ask, ‘What’s the most appropriate shoe to do this with?’ And then work down from there.”

But McInnis says that no matter what project you’re turning over to the business units, you have to “sell” what you’ve created.

“It’s not me saying, ‘I’m tired of working on this, [so] now you figure out what to do with it,'” he says. “You literally have to sell your concepts into the inside of the company first, then to the retailers, and then direct to consumer…A business unit can well within their rights say, ‘Thanks for all the hard work, but that doesn’t work for us,’ which has happened more than once.”

Navigating a Disruptive Ecosystem

When it comes to keeping up with competitors in the fast-changing worlds of retail and activewear, McInnis says that Reebok Future’s focus on testing new materials and manufacturing approaches — rather than trying to mimic another company’s products — is what gives them a leg up.

“To me, we’ll get further faster by changing how we make things,” he says. “The instinct [at many companies] tends to be, ‘We saw somebody doing this, we should be doing that as well.’ For the size of Reebok in the scale of athletic footwear, we’re not big enough to chase. We have to do something very very different. That’s where we start. If somebody else is doing it, we’re better off looking in a different direction.”

McInnis says that although Reebok is thinking about advancements in the Internet of Things and “connecting shoes to the cloud,” he still thinks that a tangible product for consumers is still a ways off.

“I think somebody needs to come up with the right application,” says McInnis. “Being able to do it and doing it in a tangible way that makes sense to consumers is that bridge… [The question is,] ‘What can you make with it that’s something valuable to your athlete or consumer at the end?'”

Building a Successful Team

McInnis says that there are two skillsets that are crucial for corporate innovation, and he focuses on building a team that can successfully blend the two.

“One [skill] is the curiosity and exploration at the front end, and the second piece is the augmentation or the doing it part,” he says. “As a group, not necessarily as an individual, you need to be good at both. Some fraction of the group needs to be really good at going out there and bumping into things, and reading voraciously, and being incredibly curious about things far outside the industry that you’re working in. Those are the things that you start to connect the dots with…Things change almost on a daily basis out in the world in terms of what’s available…What suddenly becomes available — and what that can allow you to create — gives you a lot of different jumping off points. Then you have to decide, of those jumping off points, what should we be doing near-term, middle-term, long-term, and then it’s marshaling the forces together to get after that. Our group is not a huge group, so we can’t do it all ourselves. We have to have partners on the outside that expand our reach a little bit, because they’re bumping into different people.”

Watch the Liquid Factory in action.