In a production hall as clean as a hospital, pea-size beads of white plastic pour into what looks like a minivan-size Adidas shoe box, complete with three white stripes down the side. That’s fitting, because in just a few seconds the machine heats and molds the stuff into soles of Adidas running shoes, with only one worker needed to wedge in pieces of plastic called stability bars. This is Adidas AG’s “Speedfactory,” where the shoemaker aims to prove it can profitably produce footwear in high-cost, developed economies. By next fall the facility, as large as half a soccer field, will employ about 160 people to make 1,500 pairs of shoes a day, or 500,000 annually.
The plant, halfway between Munich and Frankfurt, and a twin opening this fall near Atlanta, will be key to Adidas’s effort to catch industry leader Nike Inc. It replaces manual stitching and gluing with molding and bonding done by machines, churning out running shoes in a day, vs. two or three months in China and Vietnam, where components are shuttled among suppliers that produce individual parts. “In the history of sneaker making, this is probably the biggest revolution since manufacturing moved to Asia,” James Carnes, a 23-year Adidas veteran responsible for company strategy, says as he tours the plant. “Or maybe since sport shoes were made.”