When it was unveiled last October, adidas Futurecraft STRUNG was heralded as a true gamechanger in footwear design and manufacturing. Promising a radically new way to design, sample, and construct uppers, it’s one part of adidas’ multi-pronged Futurecraft series, which includes innovations such as the brand’s 3D-printed 4D midsoles and fully automated SPEEDFACTORY.
As part of the London Design Museum’s Sneakers Unboxed exhibition, adidas will bring sneakerheads and fans of the brand closer to the new technology than ever before. adidas hopes that STRUNG will become the new standard-bearer for designing and producing uppers. But the innovation goes much deeper than the final product and how it is produced, something the exhibition hopes to give some insight into.
“STRUNG is more than just the final product that you see. It’s a new way to create a textile that hasn’t existed before. It’s not knitting, it’s not weaving,” explains Fionn Corcoran-Tadd, senior innovation designer in adidas’ Future team. “It’s an entirely new design process, machine, and software that we’ve had to create to make this textile. Ultimately, it’s a new way for us to answer insights for athletes.”
The technology uses proprietary software — developed in partnership with radical German design studio KRAM/WEISSHAAR — to process athlete data (both quantitative and qualitative). The software can build and run tests on specific designs digitally, cutting out a lot of modeling and sampling stages, before the final design is sent to a robot. The robot then strings together an upper much more accurately than a human could, by placing the yarn exactly where it needs to go to make the biggest difference to the support, weight, and breathability of the upper.
The robot can also use multiple yarns on the same upper and is able to change the properties of the material depending on where on the upper the yarn is placed. Basically, each square centimeter of material can have different configurations of yarn and therefore support, at different points in the design, while still being one piece of material. The final result is a new-age upper, whose performance properties can be tuned much more precisely than current technologies.
Highsnobiety already covered some of Futurecraft STRUNG’s benefits during the initial unveiling in October. The technology offers a wide range of benefits to traditional upper-making methods, which include (but are not limited to) using less material overall, the ability to better represent data in the final design, and the performance benefits of using just as much material as you need.
Clemens Weisshaar co-founder of KRAM/WEISSHAAR, believes STRUNG’s versatility and customizability are what truly set it apart from traditional methods. “There is no specific benefit,” he muses. “But you can design for target benefits.” Basically, because STRUNG uses all the relevant data for a particular athlete and use-case, and runs it through software that acts as a connector for all parts of the design and manufacturing process, you can literally pick the benefit you want to design for and program each individual shoe.
“You can create a closed feedback loop between insights, data, athlete data, product data, and essentially keep refining it in a system that doesn’t forget,” continues Weisshaar. “You connect athletes, designer, engineer, material scientist, all of them in one digital realm. It’s almost redesigning design.”
Whereas previously it would take days or weeks to get samples made for athletes to test, the STRUNG robot allows those same samples to be made in hours. Shortening the feedback loop dramatically means more testing can be done and data can play a bigger role in the final product’s design, tailoring it even more to the athletes that will be wearing the shoe.
Additionally, the fact that the software is central to STRUNG and files can be sent from one computer to the next without any data loss (as is currently the case when teams were handing their brief off to the next team in the supply chain), means cross-functional and remote teams can work even closer on the same project.
“We are able to constantly drive this [innovation] around the clock because we have machines and development teams and creators that work with it on different continents. Every time you wake up in the morning, you look at what happened during the night shift on a different continent, and you can build upon that,” says Clemens Dyckmans, senior manager of Future technology creation at adidas.
Every single one of STRUNGs benefits leads back to data and how central a role the software plays, including the performance benefits that the software unlocks. “[When building the upper], the weight we’re able to hit is really good,” reveals Corcoran-Tadd. “One of the most important things is the combination of the weight with the precision that the process brings.”
“Traditionally, [to make] lightweight shoes, you’ve got to sacrifice the fit or comfort to hit those weight targets,” he continues. “[STRUNG allows us] to hit these really aggressive weight targets and not compromise on those other things. It’s a big deal for athletes because that changes their experience and, ultimately, what they’re able to do.”
Weisshaar goes into a little more detail, explaining how data on pressure points and fit usually comes in the form of material weight and stiffness “maps.” These maps show gradients, while traditional shoemaking techniques force you to layer materials. “Every seam reduces the comfort, adds weight,” he explains. “When you interpret the data or maps with traditional methods, it always ends up being an approximation. It’s rather crude.”
With STRUNG, you’ve got a technology that allows one piece of material to be fundamentally different in one area from another, which lends itself more to the idea that heatmaps are gradients. Smaller, more precise tweaks are able to be made thanks to the STRUNG software and robot.
What truly makes STRUNG so revolutionary is that the software and robot allow designers to get on par with the data resolution captured from athletes and turn it into physical products.
The adidas Future team strongly believes that performance product should enable athletes to do something they wouldn’t have been able to without it. An apt comparison would be Native American polar bear skin hunting boots and how they allowed humans to hunt for food in conditions that would have killed them otherwise.
“This idea of amplifying the human physiology is always the drive behind any performance equipment. You can suddenly do stuff you couldn’t do without it,” he explains. “STRUNG, I believe, is very much a tool that enables that amplification.”
Think of it as trying to come as close as possible to designing products that increase the potential of the human body. The closer the tool can match the human body, the better and more natural they can work together.
If the software is STRUNG’s crown jewel, the robot is the most eye-catching part. And much like STRUNG product aims to be a hyperextension of the athlete’s body, the robot is a hyperextension of the designer’s mind and body.
“With STRUNG and specifically the robot, we are enhancing the designers’ opportunity to create product because the robot arm is doing something that the human would not be able to do with that degree of precision, with that degree of speed, and with that degree of resolution. It’s a task that’s not possible,” outlines Dyckmans.
Weisshaar explains that the robot is technically just a manipulator and that the technology itself is really the software and the environment built around it. The robot isn’t anything particularly special, as it’s very similar to the ones used to build cars in mega factories. It’s what you program the robot to do — using the software — that is important.
“These things are very available and they continue to get better. You want to keep that as an ingredient that can, over time, get better and more cost-effective, and is mega available, [which] enables scale,” Weisshaar says, speaking on the scalability of the technology.
When Futurecraft STRUNG was announced in October, it was a proof of concept more than anything else. The technology is still some ways off becoming mass-market, though the team believes it has all the prerequisites to scale at some point in the near future.
“In October, we were already working on the next phase, which is scaling and ramping up production,” reveals Corcoran-Tadd. “It’s got everything. It has all the ingredients, and the potential to be as mass-market as any other technology.”
Dyckmans follows that up by explaining how adidas envision the technology being scaled: “We know that innovation of this magnitude doesn’t come to you every day. We will scale however fast we can, without compromising it,” the TITLE/ROLE says. “The target must be to bring the full potential to the athlete. This is driving the scaling timeline. We don’t want to rush this.”
If it wasn’t already obvious, data plays a big role in the successful application of STRUNG. The more time goes by and the longer STRUNG exists, the more data it will be able to analyze to make the best product possible. “The more we use the system, the better it gets,” says Weisshaar. “That’s not even AI; this is basic cybernetics.”
The adidas Future team is already focused on the next phase, working on a second edition of the STRUNG shoe that focuses on a different running profile. That shoe is set to hit the market in early 2022. From there, as Weisshaar, Corcoran-Tadd, and Dyckmans all agree, the sky is the limit for the revolutionary new technology.