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Design Insight With Brett Golliff: Hacking The System – The Future Of Nike FlyKnit

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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!

B

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.

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Category : Blogs, CounterKicks, Design Insight, Features, Nike

Comments (27)

My mind has officially been blown!

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Thanks man! It was so much fun to write.

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Incredible column by our man Brett.

Both company (Nike) and industry (footwear) implications from FlyKnit technology is insane. It takes every loose business and production thread end and ties it together into a succinct bow.

Greatly fulfills the promise of Nike Considered with environmental waste eliminated and furthering Nike’s closed loop system targets. All that extra material scrap from cutting out footwear patterns is gone too, saving millions of dollars in the process.

Nike’s profit margins expand as FlyKnit gets adopted throughout the company’s categories (and also into apparel as well, as Nike noted on today’s Q3 2012 earnings call). Labor is near eliminated with this type of manufacturing. Soaring freight costs and the extended time it currently takes to get fast-moving product to retail are all cut out of the process when Nike creates local “FlyKnit stations” almost anywhere in the world it chooses to do so. If there’s a breaking sports event or player trending, Nike won’t have to wait the 2-3 months lead time for hot one-off product to come off the boat before getting it into stores. This makes the supply chain as close to real time as possible for footwear.

Then, Brett did a tremendous job above in illustrating how customized and dialed down FlyKnit could eventually get. Nike iD and Nike Direct-to-Consumer have been huge successes for the company. Fully customized, personal “signature” shoes takes it to a whole new level, where you can pick out exactly what you want down to the thread. Product prices again elevated for that type of service I’d assume, or even relative to current prices, and Nike still wins with the manufacturing technique creating a huge profit margin divide from the way shoes are made now, which have been made essentially the same way for the past 30 years.

There’s so many ways this tech can go, so many areas it influences or overtakes.

True game changer…

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Awesome Read! Always enjoy reading your articles! Have you every considered a book?

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Great post Brett!
Flyknit really is a game changer. Flywire and no-sow/weld applications pushed the way we look at materials, and shoe construction but not nearly to this extent.
They’ve achieved a composite without resorting to layering. Actually, the whole idea of layers is gone, which is crazy. It’s now one piece that still provides what you need and where you need it.

They really took pattern efficiency and flipped it on it’s head. Instead of starting from big sheets of raw material and trying to cut it into as many smaller pieces as possible or tweaking the pattern so more can fit on there, they’ve started from yarn to knit the exact upper they needed. Going from small to big instead of big to small.

The possibilities for this process are truly remarkable.

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Great Article Brett! I don’t work in the shoe industry, but I’m definetly going to share this article with my co-workers…it’s a wealth of information.

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Thanks John, great comments man!

@T, you couldn’t be more right about flipping the script on patterns. Sometimes you have to completely forget about everything you know to create something new, I love “what if?” ideas!

@Anothony, I would love to write a book. I don’t know what about but when the time is write I will know…or if you have any thoughts? lol.

@Michael M, thanks man! What industry do you work in?

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Great Work Brett! Just wait….

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Perhaps the finest Brett column on CK yet, which is saying a whole lot.

Should Nike go down this road, there’s no reverse gear. It will entirely change how people conceive footwear. It’s probably too early to predict since there’s no short or long term public consensus on FlyKnit to examine, but if people get a taste that their footwear can be this specialized, even if they don’t care specifically for FlyKnit, doesn’t Nike’s position on delivering traditionally developed footwear all but evaporate? A sort of self cannibalism?

Forward 10 years and put a FlyKnit-based shoe for any sport against a Hyperdunk 2022. Won’t we want the FlyKnit because WE can make it and achieve the ideal fit for ourselves instead of that HD Nike’s made for us?

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WOW. Just WOW.

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@Yale
I agree with you, they’ve started something huge that will change the way people see footwear.

I see three great aspects discussed here. Consumer specific fit, synthesized uppers (that’s the best way I can describe the approach of Flyknit without limiting it to knitting. They’re “growing” this upper instead of extracting and assembling it) and DIY production.

Synthesize uppers are the next step in the industry, similar to how everyone went from traditional cut & stitched uppers to doing welds and composite uppers now…but this is way better.

I don’t think consumer tailored shoes would takeover mass produced footwear anytime soon. Nike would more likely sell a bespoke flyknit shoe at a premium like they’re doing for NikeiD and a “standard” flyknit shoe that is available at mass retail, similar with their plans for the LebronX and X+

If they ever let go of manufacturing control and let the consumer build their own shoes, it would really redefine what they’re “selling”. They’d still bring innovation and inspiration to the consumer but not through a finished product… Would the consumer be buying the digital file from them? Would they be buying a proprietary Nike printer? exclusive Nike Thread? How would that work? Would you get a single use file and enough yarn to make one pair? Would we see “pirated” shoe techpacks and bootleg Nike materials? What if there’s a manufacturing defect…Who’s accountable? Could you use your scanner to digitize your worn out outsole/midsole and have it reprint a filler piece to extend the shoe’s life?

That upper on the black and grey HTM trainer looks so dope.

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Thanks everyone for checking the post out this far and turning it into another great conversation.

@T and Yale, I completely agree that it is unlikely that bespoke shoes become mass produced with FlyKnit but I wouldn’t be shocked to see it be 10%-20% of the sales. The reason why I feel that is because how well the Free Run 2 is doing on ID.

I also think the bespoke gives Nike a very serious chance to dominate the Tech Running crowd again. Which in my opinion is the hardest consumer crowd to please. Now give them a chance to create a shoe for them and it could completely change how they look at the brand. Often times I found Tech Runners want the same shoe over and over again because they want consistent fit and feel.

As for how they sell the product, that’s an interesting question. With Nike being the “experts” I don’t know how they would ever truly give up on the design of their products. I see them as selling templates that could be mixed and matched to the point that there is no one shoe that is alike. It wouldn’t be shocking to have this as a separate room within a Nike Store just like they do ID.

To me a lot of it all depends on how they patent it, right? It wouldn’t be shocking to see Nike patent their thread. They already have their own EVA’s with Lunar and Phylon, so why not certain dinears and constructions of threads? It tells the consumer you have the best thread and construction techniques to lock their foot down. You can’t get what we have from Adidas, Asics or anyone else. It would be a great marketing move. As for a Nike printer it is probably unlikely but they could collaborate with an industry leader on it.

The main thing that all this rides on is the consumers response. I think they have the tech and performance consumer locked up but I don’t know that they have lifestyle crowd. These are basically crocheted shoes. I think if they market this shoe like the Presto it will succeed quite well. For some reason I feel like the Asian consumer is really going to take this shoe to new levels. I can just see it dominating in Japan, Korea and China’s lifestyle markets very well.

The lifespan of this technique will be interesting to say the least.

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Damn, the possibilities for where to go from here are huge. It’s reinventing the wheel, or rather, tossing it out completely and saying screw this, I’m flying (mini-pun intended). I’ve been trying to think how a new one piece upper could be envisioned, and this is definitely raising the bar higher. I want to see an upper that conforms to the foot, without using laces. Could the insole be incorporated into the upper? And just how much of midsole or outsole do we really need? This is going in all sort of off tangents, but all it takes it one spark to light up creativity.

It’s really incredible how much Nike could potentially dominate its coveted markets even further. I honestly think only adidas has the most potential out of all the other companies out there to really make a counter to this. The problem is that adidas has somewhat of a tendency to abandon technologies that work in favor of pushing new ones. It needs to take creative risks like Nike does, instead of playing it safe. They had something with Feet You Wear/ and Puremotion, and they need to continue with the pods or evolve that concept completely. Most people think they need all that cushioning, but perhaps it’s more of rethinking how we move. We’ve learned from running that landing on our forefoot shifts forces from our bones to our muscles. We see some improvements in accommodating our stride with the use of radial edges on outsoles that are more in tune with our anatomy for an overall better heel to toe transition. A flat sole has its merits in static activities or in cases where one needs as much grip as possible, but for dynamic and fluid movements, there is plenty of room for improvement.

And this is just thinking about flat surfaces; what about uneven terrain? Markets for these exist, such as trail running and even some niche ones like parkour. If those can be tapped into, it’s huge! The company that can reinvent both the upper and tooling/sole unit to work together in unison with the human body is the one I see winning the race.

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Thanks B. Any plans to interview the team that brought Flyknit to life? About their development process and future goals with this construction technology?

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Great article Brett really insightful. I think there i efficiently a market for this sort of thing in minimalist running. Something Nike hasn’t really broken into other then the Nike free. There are runners looking for a light minimalist upper show with a low heel to forefoot drop, something Nike could definitely deliver on. Brands like New Balance Saucony and Inov-8 already have minimalist shoes. I think Nike could blow them out of the water with a minimalist fly knit design.

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@J that’s an excellent idea. I am trying to reach out but that is easier said than done. All in due time!

As for the Natural Running topic that has popped up by a couple of commenters, I couldn’t agree more from an upper standpoint but I feel the “natural” element is all about the midsole. From heights to cushioning set up it varries dramatically. The stance on natural running also changes from runner to runner, so basically it’s all in the approach.

While I agree Nike hasn’t taken the approach that Vibram or even New Balance but I don’t know that they need or want to. They have established Free as their natural movement for nearly ten years now. They introduced it in every category line, it would be hard to throw that away. I can see them evolving it dramatically though.

B

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whether or not this becomes a ‘game changer’ is in large part prolly going to be determined by how well it is received. it seems much more likely to serve as a ‘brand validate-er,’ it a statement product that kinda proves that they are still focused of providing top product for top athletes.

as for where this might lead for the future…i want to believe that it could result in some of those things, if only because it might force/put pressure on the whole industry to reconsider how they make product. however, i think it will likely be a very long time before a enough people would be willing to adopt a bespoke model just because so much of how people buy product is about instant gratification. i have no doubt that nike would make the experience very luxe, unique, & user friendly; i just wonder if a truly significant number of people will be willing to both to go through the whole custom process, to wait for product that may be significantly different that what they are used to.

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@Hoopfamatic, I agree to an extent but with the rise of Nike ID don’t you think the popularity of Bespoke is rising? I mean team shoe sales are basically ushered to that website now. Now add customized performance features and it’s a lock in my opinion.

I think Nike will still always have core product for the department stores and malls but this gives them an opportunity to create an all new experience for the consumer which in the grand scheme of things is what it’s all about to Nike at this point. They know how to sell shoes, and they know how to sell them really well; so to increase profit and grow the business they have to flip the script and create something new.

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Incredible post B! absolutely wow!

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Great article, ideas and insights, always good to read. Good job Brett!

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Thanks again for all the positive comments guys! I really appreciate it.

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Great minds think alike. I’ve been working on a project for some time now that considers these bases as a point of innovation but applied to skateboarding footwear. They’re almost modular as units as they are but the interaction between the foot and shoe isn’t considered as it could be. Rapid prototyping soles, modular uppers + sustainable materials are the starting point of revolutionising the consumer experience. Like Destiny was saying, there is an infinite number of ways to incorporate Upper/ lining/ midsole/ outsole and the use of modular units despite the lack of consumer interest could be the way to forward function.

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This article should not have the word “weave” in it. No part of this shoe is “woven” whatsoever.

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Its great to read an article that is not scared of making educated guesses about the future. I believe that the 10 year timeframe for printing your own shoes at home is a little conservative. After all, Pirate Bay has already added a “physibles” 3D-printing category to its list of endless offerings, where people can share schematics for 3D-printable objects. Don’t be surprised if we will be printing our own pair of custom Nikes in less than 5 years.

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Rob, that would be amazing! I hope I was too conservative.

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Excellent article! How’d the hell did I missed this?! The last bit on the printing of midsoles are uppers are…advanced, to say the least, and if it ever comes to fruition in my lifetime, would be amazing…:)

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“Nike can sell it at whatever price they want and drive their profit margins even higher. Which could be bad for the consumer…”

No matter how good, I doubt they can dictate any price they want for a shoe. And if it is that good, isn’t the availability of this new choice good for the consumer no matter what they charge?

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