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Adidas Gives up on Robot Factories And Wants Humans in Asia to Make More Shoes

By: Vishal Mathur

Last Updated: November 12, 2019, 12:18 IST

Adidas Gives up on Robot Factories And Wants Humans in Asia to Make More Shoes

One would have assumed bringing production closer to the consumers in Europe and US would be more economical and flexible. But we are no experts.

Footwear company Adidas has announced that it will be shutting down the robot factories by April next year. The Speedfactory, umm, factories, in Ansbach, Germany and Atlanta, US will be shuttered early next year as the company plans to focus more on production at its factories in Asia, particularly China and Vietnam. This, Adidas says, will be more economical and flexible. Adidas started production of running shoes at the Speedfactory in the town of Ansbach in Germany back in 2016. Most of the production was done by robots. It was made out to be a big deal at that point of time. The second Speedfactory starting producing shoes and apparels in 2017, in Atlanta, USA. A few years down the line, their time is up. The end of the robot journey came much sooner than anyone would have perhaps expected.

“Starting at the end of this year, Adidas will use its Speedfactory technologies to produce athletic footwear at two of its suppliers in Asia. The company expects this to result in better utilization of existing production capacity and more flexibility in product design,” says the company in an official statement. The company confirms that they will continue to develop, improve and test manufacturing processes in Germany.

That said, Adidas believes they will be able to deploy some of the Speedfactory technologies at its factories in Asia for “better utilization of existing production capacity.” It is worth noting that Adidas now says factories in Asia will be more economical and flexible for business. The same company had believed that the Speedfactory concept those handful of years ago, was to bring production closer to customers in Europe and the US. One would assume bringing production closer to the consumers would be more economical and flexible. What went wrong? Anyway, we are no experts.

Robotic factories can be an incredibly powerful and versatile setup, churning out the new products off the production line at much faster speeds. But there are costs involved. These robot led factories can only be as strong as the humans who configure them. It is also a costly affair to maintain, modify, configure and upgrade the infrastructure in these factories, including the robotic arms, the computing systems that drive them, precision mechanics and more. It is easy to over-commit to robotics right now and then not be able to sustain the move.

Adidas insists the technological upgrades that the Speedfactory introduced to the process of producing running shoes and apparels will now be deployed in the factories in Asia. Adidas however doesn’t exactly say what these technologies are and how they will be implemented. “These will continue to be characterized by a particularly short production time, allowing the company to continue to respond quickly to consumer needs,” is all Adidas says.

That does make us (or anyone even remotely sensible) wonder what happens to the human element in these factories, which are already producing at capacity, and in cases, much beyond that. Technology to shorten the production time, in a factory where robots do most of the production, will now be deployed in a factory where humans do all the work. There are more than a million workers in their factories across Asia. There really is no scope for it to go wrong, is there? Checks need to be in place.

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    It has not always been a smooth journey for Adidas with regards to the conditions of factory workers. In 2018, the Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) report suggested that factories in Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam which were producing for Adidas as well, were not paying workers the minimum wages as mandated by the law. The factory workers’ average salaries are 45 percent to 65 percent below the legal minimum wage, according to the report.

    first published:November 12, 2019, 12:01 IST
    last updated:November 12, 2019, 12:18 IST