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Baltimore, MD. — “Traditional” and “by the book” have never really been a part of Kevin Plank’s business outlook. When he started Under Armour 20 years ago he set out to make a better T-shirt and felt that the apparel industry was operating (and still is) with materials, machines and ideas that were decades behind other industries.
“It is amazing for me to think about, we make a shirt the same way we do 100 years ago and it’s insulting,” Plank told reporters at a media event late last month. “It takes 140 people to make one pair of shoes, how come there isn’t a better way? How can we add robotics and other technology to make a better product and produce it more efficiently?”
With this approach in mind, Under Armour recently unveiled its new manufacturing and innovation center that has been tagged as the “Lighthouse.” It will bring seemingly futuristic technology to the world of apparel. The 35,000 square-foot center will house top designers, engineers and other manufacturing experts. The goal will be to continue to innovate Under Armour’s line of products as well as drastically cut down the amount of time it takes to produce the products as well lowering manufacturing costs per item.
“We want the Under Armour Lighthouse to serve as a beacon to make products faster, more efficiently and solve problems that athletes face during competition,” Plank said. “We want to re-invent the manufacturing process and keep this work in the United States in the process.”
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Once inside of the Lighthouse it is easy to see how advanced the facility is and its high level of sophistication. The employees walk around in lab coats and the whole place resembles a science laboratory more than a typical apparel manufacturing warehouse. Each area of the facility has specific markings with everything from 3D body scanning and printers as well as athlete prototyping.
For the 3D designing and body scanning, Under Armour has setup machines to give athletes a body scan and an exact size and fit. Not only does this enable the athlete to avoid getting measured as often, but it also gives them feedback on how their body changes from season to season. When all of the athlete specifications are in their system, they can build custom footwear depending on the sport of competition and reduce waste through extraneous apparel that doesn’t fit and gets discarded.
The facility also includes 3D printing, which allows ideas to be turned into tangible products in much less time than the normal manufacturing processes usually takes. Under Armour produced its first 3D printed shoe in March 2016, the Architech, when it used its Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) printer to create the shoes lattice-structured soles. This process also allows Under Armour to test and improve on ideas beyond the traditional cuts of shoes and methods for manufacturing with the quick product for testing. It also enables quicker feedback on new ideas and viability can be judged before Under Armour has to decide whether to begin production.
The “Lighthouse” is a bold move by Under Armour to bring new-age technologies to the apparel production process and in turn keep the manufacturing done locally. Plank has long wanted to revitalize his hometown of Baltimore and have the majority of Under Armour’s operations be in the city. Plank also feels his work is just getting started with manufacturing innovation and that the Lighthouse is the “tip of the spear” of innovation in the apparel industry.
The project is no doubt an enormous investment, but Plank and his team believe that over time it can lead to much better manufacturing processes. Like with everything Under Armour is doing, Plank is always for the next great idea.
“At Under Armour,” Plank said. “We are truly just getting started.”