News on Shoes

From the November '98 Port City Pacers PaceLeter

Despite my best efforts at remaining gainfully unemployed, I’ve recently embarked on a (hopefully) short-term project for a major athletic shoe manufacturer. Since trade secrets are involved I’m not at liberty to discuss certain things, and would probably be better off not even mentioning their name (although one anagram for their name would be BEER OK, which is kind of nice.) But since I “forgot” to sign my confidentiality agreement on a recent visit to their world headquarters outside of a large northeastern US city (which I also shouldn’t name, but it was where the Boston Tea Party took place...) I guess I can still legally share some of what I learned on the trip with you (although they will probably have me killed if I let too much of the really juicy stuff slip out. I’m told they do that sort of thing every day ...)

The first thing the casual observer notices (after flying in first-class, picking up a pre-arranged gigundo rental car to drive to a pre-paid $160/night hotel) is that there’s a great deal of moola being made in the shoe business. I haven’t completed my MBA yet, but it stands to reason that if you sell a product for 20 times what it costs to produce, and millions of people buy said product, some money is going to wind up in your coffers.

Anyway, I digress. When I arrived at headquarters at 9:00am (much like someone with a real job would) I was greeted by a surprisingly friendly security staff. Surprising because I was given the bum’s rush out of the place during my last visit when I showed up for a workout in the high-tech company gym wearing a pair of shoes made by another manufacturer (whose name rhymes with psyche.) This time I was given my security credentials and directed to the research and development building. After exchanging pleasantries (“Nice shoes, Dave...”) S.W. (his real initials, but not his real name) explained the shoe production process and took me on a tour of the R&D facility. Like all major US shoe manufacturers, this company makes the vast majority of their shoes in the Far East where labor costs are negligible, but there is a complete production line in the R&D lab where all new prototypes are developed.

Although millions of dollars are spent on biomechanical research, the initial ideas for most shoes are dreamed up by the marketing people rather than the design team. In some cases shoes are made very differently from the way the biomechanists say they should be made because market research has shown that these flawed shoes will sell better. Fitness walking shoes are a fine example. Fitness walkers think they need a stiff, heavy shoe with a lot of cushioning so that’s what the shoe companies sell them, even though the biomechanists say walkers would actually be much better off with a lighter, more flexible shoe.

When marketing sends down their wish list, the design team begins drawing up plans. Many new shoe designs are still drawn as flat, 2-dimensional images on paper, but Computer Aided Design (CAD) is becoming more and more the norm. There are literally dozens of pieces that go into even a seemingly straightforward shoe, so designers tend to specialize within each of the 15 different shoe categories (running, walking, basketball, soccer, cross-training, outdoor, etc.) There are even separate designers working on the upper and the sole of the same shoe.

After the designer draws the shoe, a steel mold is made to shape the foam rubber soles, and patterns are made for each of the pieces that go into the upper. The fabrics for each piece of the upper are then cut and stitched together. Before the shoe is completely stitched it is put on the last--a hard plastic mold that determines the final shape of the shoe. Each shoe division uses different lasts, although the same last may be used for several different shoes within a particular line. After the upper is completely stitched, it is sent through a “heat tunnel” (kind of like a smaller version of the automated pizza ovens at Domino’s) to set the shape. The completed upper is then cemented to the sole and sent through the heat tunnel again. Prototypes are made in men’s size 9 and women’s size 7, then sent to the wear-testing lab. Shoes are machine tested for durability, cushioning and other characteristics, and if they make the grade, shoes are sent to athletes for on-the-road wear-testing. Based on athlete reviews, the shoes are then modified and an “extreme size” run is produced (usually size 5 and 13) to see how the shoes differ in larger and smaller sizes. If all goes well, a complete size run is produced and then these shoes are sent to athletes for testing. Final modifications, if any, are made to the design based on athlete input, then the designs and prototypes are sent to one or more of the 28 factories in the Far East for production.

In theory, the shoes produced by each factory should be identical, but for a variety of reasons shoes can vary widely from their intended size or shape. Factories may run out of a particular fabric and substitute a different fabric that may stretch or shrink much more than the original; heat and humidity will vary from factory to factory (although most Far-Eastern factories are very hot and very humid) which will also alter the shoe; or perhaps a thicker or thinner sock-liner than the design called for will be put into a shoe. These and other factors can cause a shoe to be as much as 1 1/2 sizes larger or smaller than the size printed on the shoe--which can obviously be very frustrating.

This is well beyond the point where you should be asking yourself: “Self? What’s Dave getting at?” Well, what I’m getting at is that just as in any other complicated process, there are a lot of places in the shoemaking process where things can get goofed up. So whether you’re buying a Rolls Royce or a new pair of running shoes, sometimes you can get stuck with a lemon. Make sure your shoes fit properly before buying them no matter what number is printed on the box or label--even if you’ve already owned and been satisfied with a pair of the same shoes. Another point is that a lot of what goes on in a major shoe company is market driven rather than common sense driven. Shoe designs change constantly, so as soon as you find a shoe you’re happy with buy several pair--they’re inevitably going to stop making your “perfect shoe.”

This may or may not be of any use to you when buying your next pair of shoes, but now you should have all the information you need to make your own. Let me know how they turn out, ok?


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