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Why Salomon is going forward with shoe factory 4.0 in Europe after Adidas failed

By Regina Henkel

Jan 22, 2021

The future of manufacturing is digital and fully automated: In September 2020, the foundation stone was laid of the new, fully automated shoe factory 4.0 of Salomon, Millet and Babolat in France.

In Ardoix, France, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, the first fully automated shoe with digitally controlled, intelligent production is being built. The four fully automated production lines range from the cutting of the various shoe components to the packaging of the finished product, including all assembly phases. Expected to reach full capacity in 2025, the “Advanced Shoe Factory 4.0” (ASF 4.0) is geared to have a capacity of 500,000 pairs of sports shoes per year.

The ASF 4.0 was developed as a joint large-scale project by French textile manufacturer Chamatex as the main owner, shoe manufacturers Salomon, Millet and Babolat, technology provider Siemens Digital Industries and innovation incubator Groupe Zebra. Production is supposed to start as early as the summer of 2021, with the first products coming to market in 2022. The goal of the ten-million-euro project is relocating production from Asia to Europe, shortening reaction times and making manufacturing more flexible.

Guillaume Meyzenq, VP Footwear Category at Salomon, explains what exactly he is planning and why Salomon believes that it can currently do such a project better than Adidas, which failed with its Speedfactories in Europe, at least for the time being.

How did the idea of setting up our own production facility in France come about?

Guillaume Meyzenq: About ten years ago it became apparent that the way we have been producing in Asia up to now would no longer be the unique solution in the long term - with large factories, thousands of workers, etc. - and that we would have to build up our own production in France. New material developments, new production methods and digital design technologies, together with the ongoing digitalization and automation, have created completely new possibilities.

How should one picture the new factory?

It will be a unique factory: fully automated, digitally controlled production with robots. Instead of 500 people, there will be 50 working there with the same production volume. The goal is to become much faster and to change product lines more quickly. Thanks to digitalization and new production methods and materials, this will happen much faster than before.

To what extent is the new way of manufacturing different?

Today, for example, a trail running shoe consists of 50 to 80 parts. With the new material technology and new adhesive techniques, we can drastically reduce the number to as few as ten parts. The material technology has changed a lot, especially with new knitting technologies. This allows us to build in a completely different performance with just one material without having to use different parts. This is the future of the footwear industry.

Thanks to the 4.0 technology, we will be able to produce different styles at the same time. In a current production process, we set up the production line with one style and mainly one color, and produce in large volumes. When the technology has been perfected, automation will allow for producing different styles at the same time.

How did you proceed in terms of developing the new processes? So far, there are no such fully automated manufacturing systems.

We started looking into the matter and developed our own small production facility in Annecy with two robots. It is important to know that many parts of our R&D department are still located in Annecy, even though we produce in Asia. We still develop all our prototypes here and we have all the machines needed for production. That's why we were able to go one step further and develop a new generation of factories.

So we started experimenting with automation several years ago. In the year 2017, we launched the first collection of 10.000 pairs of shoes produced in Annecy as a limited edition Made in France; we also produced customized products there.

In other words, you have already played the production through on a small scale?

Yes, and the more we learned there, the better we could start looking for suitable partners. Of course, we can't build such a large-scale production facility all by ourselves. Our cooperation with Chamatex began three years ago. At the same time, Chamatex started talks with Siemens in France, which is a pioneer in the field of digital factories. Siemens is already very far in the development of the digital twin, which makes it possible to see exactly where the product is at any time in the process chain.

You are planning to use the factory together with outdoor brand Millet and French tennis supplier Babolat. What does this cooperation between the brands look like?

The cooperation is only about the production. We have no insights into the design or their customers. Furthermore, Babolat and Millet are not direct competitors for us. But of course, we know that there are many reservations about collaboration in our industry. Everyone always wants to do everything alone, for fear of losing competitive advantages. But in our mindset, we see more advantages in cooperation. Today, you don't have to and don't need to invent everything yourself. In addition, it is, of course, always easier for a factory to have several customers, not least to achieve better capacity utilization.

What is the current status of the factory? What are you working on?

We are currently erecting the structure and building the production chain. We are working on how the product can be designed to suit the plant and its capabilities. We are learning to understand the new possibilities of the new technologies in their full scope. And to use them.

What is your schedule?

The first products should be available in 2022, so production should start in summer 2021.

Salomon is now part of a Chinese sportswear group, and China in particular wants to become the world leader in automated production. Is there any kind of cooperation too in this area?

The new ownership is still too young to really be able to say anything here. Of course, there is already some cooperation in R&D and 3D. But this is not yet happening on a large scale. Nor is there any kind of competition between China and France, where production will take place in the future. It's mainly about thinking locally and thus becoming faster, more reactive and more sustainable.

How many pairs of shoes are you planning to produce at the new factory?

Our idea of a good number is two million pairs of shoes a year. At the beginning, we expect 500,000 pairs. And our vision is to build such factories wherever suitable markets exist. This way we get a stable production and a lower carbon footprint. We will then really be very close to our production facility - it only takes two hours to get there from Annecy.

Your idea reminds one of course of the Adidas Speedfactory project, which has been discontinued in Europe. Why do you think that your project will succeed at this time?

When Adidas started building its Speed Factories, we started experimenting with our own production facilities in France. Because of the cooperation with Chamatex and Siemens, we are now moving to the next level of production. The way we do production today is different from what we imagined ten years ago. There is now a lot more experience in the industry with such processes and automation - also in the footwear industry. Now is simply the right time to start such a project. As far as I know, Adidas didn't fail either, Adidas learned a lot from it and is now using the technology in China.

What do you think: will we soon see automated production in the clothing sector too?

According to Siemens, everything can be automated! But we don't think so far ahead yet. First of all, the shoe production has to work.

If everything goes well, local production should soon be possible again. Of course, it's also about sustainability. To what extent is “Made in France” important?

This is of course a good selling point in Europe. People are paying more attention to where products come from and whether a brand takes responsibility. People want to trust the products, also the way they are made. We therefore attach great importance to CSR and responsible production. For example, starting from FW20, all Salomon shoes will be PFC-free and we will be launching the first circular shoe next summer, the Index 01. We think that the more we produce locally, the more transparent the supply chain will become and the more trust we get from the consumer. too. In this respect, the consumer is actually the game changer. Ultimately, all the individual pieces of the puzzle, such as local production, circular products and new material developments, result in a completely new manufacturing system.

This translated article was originally published on FashionUnited.de.

Photos: Salomon / foundation stone laying: Chamatex

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