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In 1946 Charles and Ray Eames introduced a product called the LCW, which stood for Lounge Chair Wood. The LCW chair was the first to introduce a combination of modern aesthetics and natural craftsmanship, two consumer desires that were seemingly at odds with each other. They introduced a new precision crafted design language that was so inspiring it would be copied for decades to come. While the LCW has become an icon of modern design, it was the exploration and development of a new manufacturing process that made it a breakthrough. Plywood had been around for over a hundred years as a material and had recently been used in advanced aircraft, but it was considered to look cheap and unattractive.

What the Eameses did was to turn simple bent plywood into a visually inspiring product that looked expensive and could be made available to the masses. By embracing a new process and a yet unused but widely available material they were able to not only invent a unique product with a bold and elegant look, they were able to propel their industry forward into a new era of design thinking. They pioneered a mind-set of utilising new processes that would bring together competing consumer desires.

Today there are parallels to this scenario in the world of sport products. On one hand, consumers have begun to expect constant innovation in comfort, function and style. On the other hand they expect sports companies and manufacturers to take responsibility for the clean, safe, and sustainable production of those products. A recent study showed that consumers consider sustainability leaders in an industry to be 400% more innovative compared to those who are not seen as sustainable (DeLoitte 2012). The challenge of designing for these two desires alone is a daunting task. When you add the fact that we can no longer rely on affordable hand labour as an unlimited resource as in the past, it becomes clear that we need to adapt to more automated processes in the future.

This should happen for two reasons. The first is to ensure that we develop a mind-set of collaboration between designers and manufacturers that will optimise the use of available processes and techniques. Most designers already have sufficient knowledge of manufacturing, but they are driven more by their determination to provide a beautifully-finished product. Getting them to think about how to design for more efficient or more profitable manufacturing is simply a matter of framing the challenge in a different way that appeals to their desire to improve every product for the consumer.

For example, instead of trying to impose the limitations of computer stitching onto a traditional design to reduce cost and improve efficiency, it is far more promising to challenge a designer to create a shoe that uses computer stitching as the primary means of construction and value to the consumer. What you will likely end up with is a unique looking product with a competitive edge in the market. Similar thinking can be applied to seamless knitting in apparel, direct injected moulding applications of components and midsoles, and stock fitting automations. Let's turn the challenge around, and get manufacturing into the initial brief of the product.

The second reason that we should integrate designers into the manufacturing process is to leverage this newly established mind-set of collaboration to explore untapped production methods in our industry. While designers hold the beauty of the finished product as a top priority, they hold an even more deeply rooted desire to make the world a better place through their work. It becomes very easy to motivate them with the prospect of a single product having a positive impact on progress.

Knitting in footwear is one example of exactly this type of thinking. It was clear from the early development of adidas Primeknit, that we would be able to achieve several things at once. These achievements included a high-performance product integrating all functionality into a single layer, a handcrafted aesthetic using programmable automation, and a sustainable product with close to zero waste. Using the success of the Primeknit as an example, we can approach new techniques like robotic assembly, tailored fibre placement 3D printing, and other additive manufacturing processes to define the future.  

While the sporting goods industry is in no risk of slowing down, it is time that we prepare for change beyond simply optimising the current state of affairs. We need to reframe our challenge to designers to maximise the production capabilities that exist today, and establish a new mind-set that inspires designers to explore the new capabilities that will be needed tomorrow.

This article was first published in the 2015 WFSGI Magazine.

About the WFSGI:

Global solutions through international teamwork – The World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI) was founded in 1978 and is the world authoritative body for the sports industry officially recognised by the IOC as the industry representative within the Olympic family. The WFSGI is an independent, non-profit and non-governmental association formed by sports brands, manufacturers, suppliers, retailers, national federations and other sporting goods industry related businesses. The WFSGI plays a strategic role in the support and promotion of the sporting goods industry worldwide. The WFSGI promotes free and fair trade and provides platforms for the intergovernmental cooperation with regards to the International Organisations interested or affected by sports. Its aim is also to expand the cooperation on the protection of intellectual property rights and improve human rights issues related to working conditions. All this can be done through contacts with International Organisations such as the ILO, WTO, WHO, UN but also through International Sports Federations (FIFA, IAAF, FIVB, etc.) and the IOC, via the exchange of information and clearing house on issues and topics developed by WFSGI’s various committees.

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