Faced with tough competition from low-wage countries and economic strife at home, European shoemakers are interested in clever and efficient solutions to design and customise stylish shoes that meet every customer's needs. But is ‘mass customisation’ like this a contradiction in terms? Not according to EU-funded researchers.
It was once said that both tyres and shoes are recession-proof. But while shoes are basically essential, people do not have to buy them from European manufacturers if cheaper alternatives serve the purpose.
Around three-quarters of the shoes produced worldwide are made in low-wage, low-cost factories. Faced with this reality, European industrial researchers and shoemakers literally thought outside the box to transform the industry from its current cost-based approach to competition into a customer-driven, value-added sector.
Their vision, as communicated through the EU-backed Dorothy project, was to foster ‘customised’ mass production in multiple sites and countries. “This is a unique way to produce shoes in a factory of the future,” says project spokesperson Paolo Pedrazzoli, University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI).
The added value, he explains, relates to personalisation and sustainability: “Europe can make green, customised shoes at real costs and still make a profit. That’s good for European shoemakers and for the economy.”
The project’s homage to the Wizard of Oz is of course hard to miss. The original story is even quoted on their literature: “Dorothy took off her old shoes and tried on the silver ones, which fitted her as well as if they had been made for her.”
In essence, a customer anywhere in the world can step into a shop powered by Dorothy’s solutions and become co-designers of their next pair of pumps, trainers, sandals... The shoes can then be produced efficiently in a factory around the corner or on the other side of Europe using engineering plans and tools also developed in the project.
Shoes and more
On the design level, aspects such as fit-comfort, aesthetic-style and performance-function were considered in Dorothy’s holistic approach to footwear. Project partners Hugo Boss, Decathlon and Alpina helped to gather scans/data of thousands of their customers’ feet which provided invaluable input. “Nothing like this has ever been carried out,” says Dr Pedrazzoli.
On the production side, the project came up with tools to improve multi-site logistics, factory planning and industrial engineering design. Economics and the business climate were also important drivers. The current financial and economic crisis is greatly affecting business in Europe, so the ability to quickly customise products is critical to future competitive success, suggests the team.
Dorothy focused on shoemaking, but its customisation models, demos and tools, such as its Factory Layout Planner and Performance Manufacturing (PerFact) mass customisation tool, can easily extend to other manufacturing sectors. Indeed, Dorothy’s partners have been keen to disseminate the project’s results to a wide cross-section of industries that stand to benefit from a manufacturing approach engineered for today’s competitive markets.
Team members have contributed to several books and papers to get the message out, including the title ‘Knowledge management for mass customisation’, edited by Dorothy project’s Alain Bernard, which is available through Spinger, and the paper ‘Performance factory in the context of mass customisation’, presented at the 16th International Conference on Concurrent Enterprising.
According to reports, commercial partners Decathlon and Alpina have also put the data from the foot-scanning campaign to good use since the project ended. Technology Transfer Systems (TTS), an SME partner and IT specialist, has licensed the Factory Layout Planner developed within the project to help kitchen manufacturers with their own customisation challenges.
Project acronym: Dorothy
Participants: Switzerland (Coordinator), France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Slovenia