Shoe-making is typically thought of as a labour intensive operation, especially sports shoes. This is because the product is made from soft materials, is manufactured in many different sizes, and many different models are marketed. It is for this reason that many European and American operators offshore their manufacturing operations to low labour cost countries such as China. New Balance has chosen not to do this.
The company was founded in 1906 in Boston, Massachusetts as a company selling arch supports to police officers and waiters. It is now a $3.8 billion private company, employing 5,000 people, predominantly manufacturing shoes for running, cross-training, basketball, tennis, hiking, and golf. It has five factories in the U.S.A. and one in the U.K. The company has a commitment to manufacturing in its main markets, which is why it was an early adopter of automation – to keep its costs down. Even so, New Balance shoes are regarded as a premium product, selling at slightly higher prices than those of its main competitors.
In the 1980s, it adopted “computerised stitching” which automated the delivery of materials to sewing machines. In the 1990s, it adopted 3D printing initially to assist with new product development and prototyping. In 2016, it made around 4,000 prototypes in this way in order to review the aesthetics and/or functionality of a new shoe or its components. But more recently this technology is also being used in other ways. First it is used for the manufacture of specific parts of shoes such as the soles of shoes, and the cushioning materials in midsoles. Second, it has enabled New Balance to produce one-off, customised shoes made for specific athletes or customers.
Another technology New Balance has adopted are robots, which have been used in their operations for nearly thirty years. Increasingly cobots are being deployed, these are robots that work in combination with employees in order to assist them with repetitive tasks and assure consistency.
Finally, the company has digitised its quality and control systems, replacing paperwork with touch screens and apps. As well as providing employees with precise specifications for manufacturing, the system is highly effective in identifying defects. By incorporating analytics into this software, managers are now able to identify solutions to any quality problem that may occur and to disseminate these not only to every work station or production line within the factory, but also across all the factories within the company.