LAST WINTER, THE sportswear giant Adidas opened a pop-up store inside a Berlin shopping mall. The boutique was part of a corporate experiment called Storefactory—a name as flatly self-explanatory as it is consistent with the convention of German compound nouns. It offered a single product: machine-knit merino wool sweaters, made to order on the spot. Customers stepped up for body scans inside the showroom and then worked with an employee to design their own bespoke pullovers. The sweaters, which cost the equivalent of about $250 apiece, then materialized behind a glass wall in a matter of hours.
The miniature factory behind the glass, which consisted mainly of three industrial knitting machines spitting forth sweaters like dot-matrix printouts, could reportedly produce only 10 garments a day. But the point of the experiment wasn’t to rack up sales numbers. It was to gauge customer enthusiasm for a set of concepts that the company has lately become invested in: digital design; localized, automated manufacturing; and personalized products.
Storefactory was just a small test of these ideas; much bigger experiments were already under way. In late 2015, Adidas had opened a brand-new, heavily automated manufacturing facility in Ansbach, Germany, about 35 miles from its corporate headquarters. Called Speedfactory, the facility would pair a small human workforce with technologies including 3-D printing, robotic arms, and computerized knitting to make running shoes—items that are more typically mass-produced by workers in far-off countries like China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. The factory would cater directly to the European market, with digital designs that could be tweaked ad infinitum and robots that could seamlessly transmute them into footwear customized to the shifting preferences of Continental sneakerheads. By placing factories closer to consumers, Adidas could ostensibly leapfrog over shipping delays and expenses. “What we enable is speed,” said Gerd Manz, vice president of Adidas’ innovation group. “We can react to consumer needs within days.”