Chris Middleton laments the closure of a bold experiment to rethink manufacturing for the on-demand, robot-powered, more sustainable age.

In recent years, the combination of the Industrial Internet of Things, sensors, analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics has been in the media spotlight, as a means to transform a variety of industries, including energy, oil, gas, deep mining, nuclear decommissioning, the supply chain, and – above all – manufacturing.

Sensor-informed, automated, data-backed smart manufacturing is an attractive concept, if it can be faster, more sustainable, more efficient, and cheaper, and match goods more closely to human needs and consumption – while predicting what demand or usage patterns may emerge in the future.

For decades, the concept of manufacturing being a monolithic, reactive, and cost-focused process has dominated, with global supply chains that have followed the availability of low-cost human labour. These have incurred huge environmental, time, and sustainability costs as goods have been manufactured en masse offshore then shipped across the globe in a wasteful, slow, and profit-focused exercise.

At the core of this process has been an unfortunate spin on the age-old adage: make ’em cheap, pile ’em high, and – if you can’t sell ’em – dump ’em in a landfill’.

Industrial robots have joined the fray, with manufacturing giants such as China and the US buying tens of thousands of units, while – counter-intuitively for those doom-mongers who believe that robots equal mass unemployment – frequently employing thousands of additional human workers in sectors such as automotive and metals, often in skilled engineering positions.

At least part of the attraction of robotics for China and other fast-emerging economies has been the prospect of keeping costs down for Western customers, while fuelling their own economic growth and productivity.

However, in recent years the promise of an alternative model has emerged alongside the availability of smaller, programmable, collaborative robots (cobots), combined with technologies such as additive manufacturing (3D printing), sensors, data analytics, on-demand business, cloud platforms, automated supply chains, customisation, and more.

Change consultants such as Sean Cluley have talked of ‘PAL’ value chains – systems that are personalised, automated, and localised, rather than monolithic, outsourced, and global.

The thinking is this: what if you could make a single pair of trainers locally for someone, rather than on the other side of the planet? What if you could deliver them the next day to their door, rather than ship them across the globe in a slow-moving container full of identical shoes? And what if you could do all this as cheaply as manufacturing one unit in a million?

In other words, a model of micro-manufacturing on the doorstep, rather than macro-manufacturing on the other side of the world. The PAL concept would break apart monolithic manufacturing and distribution chains, repatriating processes while keeping costs down and the environment safe: an enticing future vision.

This was precisely what shoe giant Adidas was attempting to do with its Speedfactories concept, which was proposed as a means to enable manufacturing to move as fast as fashion does for Adidas customers – buyers who are increasingly informed about ethical sourcing, but who still want their goods yesterday with minimal friction and cost.

Two ‘pilot’ Speedfactories were located in Ansbach and Atlanta a couple of years ago, with cobots making shoes on demand for (comparatively) localised distribution. However, an announcement from the company this week has revealed that the experiment has been abandoned with the two facilities closing by April next year.

The press release says: “The Speedfactories have been instrumental in furthering our manufacturing innovation and capabilities. […] We very much regret that our collaboration in Ansbach and Atlanta has come to an end.”

Claudius Kozlik, CEO of manufacturing partner Oechsler, added, “Whilst we understand Adidas’ reasons for discontinuing Speedfactory production at Oechsler, we regret this decision.”

The closure will apparently see Adidas redeploy the technologies… to factories in Asia.

Sadly, it seems that the rate of technology change and capability is not keeping pace with some companies’ ambitions. Or it may be that the old economics of manufacturing cheaply en masse are just too hard to shake off, no matter what the damage to the planet may be.

But a third explanation may be that not enough of the public wanted the future to look like this, suggesting that the industry needs to do much more to educate buyers of the benefits.

Whichever is true, it is bad news for all concerned.