Shoe manufacturing may come back to America, but the jobs may not

Adidas Speedfactory RobotAdidasA robot from Adidas’ ‘speedfactory.’

American manufacturing is in the spotlight again, and with it comes a renewed focus on where the clothing we put on our bodies is being made.

One subset with an increasing focus is shoes — specifically, sneakers. The number of sneakers that are imported is staggering. Approximately 99% of all shoes sold in America are made elsewhere due to the labour-intensive process that shoe-making requires and the high cost of labour in the US.

However, the landscape for the apparel industry has changed, and the influence of fast fashion lingers. Brands like Nike and Adidas are looking for ways to bring their products to market faster than manufacturing in Asia allows.

The solution, then, is to reshore American manufacturing, but find somewhere to cut costs. Since the largest cost is labour, cutting down the workforce significantly would be prudent. Enter automation. Essentially, shoe manufacturing is already on its way back to the US, but the manufacturing jobs may not come along with it.

For example, Adidas is building a “speedfactory” in Atlanta that will allow it to manufacture some 50,000 shoes in 2017, with aspirations to eventually make up to 500,000 a year.

“It’s a drop in the bucket,” Matt Powell, an analyst at NPD, told Bloomberg. “I don’t see a day where we’ll be making shoes in the US at a commercial scale.”

As it stands at the opening, the factory will employ only about 160 people on the floor. But while actual manufacturing jobs may not come back, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost for a net increase in jobs stateside.

Distribution, sales, marketing, retail, and delivery are all sectors that would need to support the factory’s output, Michael Raphael, founder of Under Armour-affiliated 3D-services company Direct Dimensions, told Bloomberg.

“You will also have a whole supply chain that has to feed this,” he told Bloomberg.

For many of the larger companies, the faster supply chain and the lavish praise that would surely be administered by the current president might be tempting enough to reshore their shoe manufacturing with heavy automation. But don’t expect it to happen tomorrow.

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