Brett Golliff hacks into Nike’s bright FlyKnit future…
In the following essay I have done my best to recap what I feel is amazing about FlyKnit presently and where I can see it taking Nike in five years and then in ten years. It is an informed speculative guess as to what I feel is a very exciting new construction method and what I feel the potential it could have.
Feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments section!
Lately, I have been analyzing and interpreting the potential effect that Nike’s new technology, FlyKnit, will have on the footwear industry and I have determined that it is indeed a true game changer. Honestly, if I were other footwear companies I would be scared but the fact is they have been scared. No other footwear company would have the courage to take a sock and make it perform at higher standards. A sock is a sock to them; it is not a shoe. Now, like they have for the past two decades, all the brands outside of Nike Inc. will be playing catch up.
It is no secret that lightweight footwear has been dominating running for the past few years. For Nike, it started at their last Olympic “Innovation Summit” in 2008 when they unveiled Flywire, which changed how all athletic shoe companies create their product, not just Nike. With an effort to minimize layers and bring the shoe closer to the foot, companies began ditching foam packages, overlays and anything that didn’t need to be there. I remember working at New Balance when Flywire launched and watching everyone be amazed by it for its simplicity in production and what many considered a novel idea: thread as an element of support? While many didn’t grasp it and labeled it as a great marketing story, others dug up their old designs where they have created something similar to say “see, we could have done that, I had the idea years ago!” Now, with FlyKnit, I promise you the same conversations are happening everywhere, again.
The major effect that I see happening is profit margins soaring because of the ease of production the technique provides. As opposed to the typical stitching or welding overlays, FlyKnit is entirely made within a machine that was previously used to knit sweaters and socks and has now been re-engineered to weave the upper of the shoe. This in itself is a lesson to other companies. If you find something that is unique, do your best to achieve it. After seeing what was essentially a sock glued to a midsole, Nike hired a team of computer programmers to hack the knitting machine to create what they wanted. Very few companies have the confidence to spend money to achieve their goals like this. Because of this search for a new manufacturing technique, it leads to what will be a dramatic cut in labor costs. The fewer people that work on the shoe, the less money you spend to create it.
From a design standpoint, FlyKnit elevates what I feel was the initial intention of Flywire. When Flywire first dropped it needed to have a welded overlay to secure your foot in place, which raised the question: what is actually securing the foot, the TPU weld or the wire? Now with its knitting capabilities, Nike has the opportunity to intertwine an elastic cable between the woven thread that holds it in place without locking it down. Basically it allows the cable to stretch with the movement of your foot. Gone are the days of TPU digging into your metatarsals and irritating it. It should also relieve nascent critiquing of footwear by people saying, “All the shoes are plastic and not soft” anymore. The whole system will work with the foot in a much more anatomical motion, almost becoming a part of the body.
Moving past a functional standpoint, Nike can now ask themselves what is waste? because they have almost centralized their waste solely to the midsole and sole of the shoe. The upper is nothing but thread with the leftover material weighing less than a sheet of paper. I have heard that this technology could cut up to $40,000,000 in leftover material. If that is true, it would be an understatement in how large of a step that is for Nike in not only profit but also in creating the next generation of environmentally Considered product. It is no secret that Nike has been one of the leading corporations (not only in footwear) in creating and promoting environmentally friendly practices. FlyKnit only takes them further.
The only true challenges that I see for the technology is how it is utilized throughout the rest of Nike’s sport categories, like basketball, and how they make a full upper out of it.
Right now Nike is saying that the whole upper is knitted, which it is for the most part. But from what I can tell it is still a patterned piece that looks to be sewn in the heel, and the tongue is also an additional piece that is sewn on. The moment they figure out how to do a full three-dimensional knit (and they will) Nike will have truly zero waste in the upper. ZERO! That will be insane.
I think it will be interesting to see how FlyKnit is rolled out into the rest of Nike’s categories. As it sits right now, the technology is perfect for running. It makes complete sense from all performance issues: it is light, it can be tuned in key performance areas. Basically the support is where you need it. The key thing for running is that you rarely cut. It is a heel-to-toe stride and for the most part you run in a straight line so you don’t have to worry about rolling over the top of your shoe. This is a concern in virtually every other sport. So it will be intriguing to see how Nike problem solves for this. Could they just make the weave tighter in certain areas? Almost certainly, but I think they will have to create additional improvements for sports like basketball. More than likely there will have to be some sort of an overlay and the FlyKnit will be featured in key stretch areas, similar to how it is being used on the LunarGlide 4.
5 Years From Now
This technology has the greatest opportunity to improve the customer experience of buying a shoe than any other mass marketed shoe before it. The shoe can literally be customized down to each individual thread. Imagine a scenario where you walk into a Nike store like 21 Mercer in New York and you truly custom build a shoe for you. It’s essentially Nike iD on steroids. You walk into the store and instead of shoes on a wall, there are just midsoles with an endless amount of thread types and colors hanging on the wall. Then you would select the weight of the thread, the material of the thread, the weave pattern, the shape of the upper, the logo placements, et cetera. The options are seriously endless. The shoe will truly be yours.
From a business standpoint, Nike has the opportunity to become what I am calling “Universally Local.” A major emphasis by media on FlyKnit thus far is how it could bring manufacturing back to the US, which is huge but I don’t think it will necessarily work like that.
The reality is that Nike is a global company that supplies footwear to almost every region on every continent. What I see happening is Nike opening a “production center” or factory at key spots in every region to better support that area. The cost of shipping is virtually eliminated. Getting their product to where it matters most, the customer, in a much quicker fashion because they don’t have to wait for freightliners to cross the ocean for months with their product. This creates a much more agile supply chain and also lowers the effects of product creation on the environment.
On top of that, Nike increases profit because they cut the middleman out. If you go and create your product at their store, they don’t have to worry about a wholesale price. Nike can sell it at whatever price they want and drive their profit margins even higher. Which could be bad for the consumer, but let’s assume for the future’s sake Nike doesn’t get too greedy.
Another major impact this technology could have is its integration with Nike+ and the FuelBand. By using the FuelBand to track your stats, it can create a profile that allows you to not only learn how you perform but also see where your performance is lacking and how you could improve. The profile could then be accessed either online or at a brick-and-mortar Nike Store where they then use that information to construct a shoe that truly benefits you. Think of it as your own “Signature” shoe.
10+ Years From Now
This might be the biggest “what if” but without “what if’s” we would all still be wearing vulcanized footwear as performance shoes. So…what if you could just push print on Nike iD? Forget going to the store and forget waiting for your order to be made and forget “ordering” shoes in general. There would be no more lines and certainly no more riots.
3D printing would let you manufacture a product that is bespoke and on demand. Imagine if you could scan your foot at your home 3D prototyping printer that in return works with your Nike+ and Nike FuelBand data to craft a product completely catered to you. Once the computer reads your data it starts developing where the key areas of support are for you and makes a tessellating pattern that conforms specific to your foot. You then view the appearance and select the colors and push print.
The printer then builds the shoe from the ground up. While they don’t have it yet, it wouldn’t be that far fetched to see a printer that can use Phylon or EVA foam as its printing compound for your sole unit, which again is designed around the positioning of your foot. Then once the sole unit is complete, it would print and weave the upper. The threads would be dyed within the printer with CMYK-like cartridges, just like a printer works today. Then within a couple of hours you have your shoe, ready to wear and ready to perform — all without leaving your home!
This idea is far fetched and honestly ten years is pretty aggressive for this vision but the implications could be huge. The carbon footprint for the product would be nearly nonexistent because the product is made locally. And the cost of 3D printing is coming down dramatically. Right now you can find some units for $1,500. With some finessing I seriously could see this happing in some capacity.
Brett Golliff is a Lead Designer at General Motors and former Designer at New Balance.