New Balance sneaker stops at each worker for only 22.5 seconds during their creation at the company’s five New England-based factories. However, those 22.5 seconds are all about precision – mechanical and individual. New Balance is creating more than 4 million sneakers from the United States – thus being the only major sneaker brand that is manufacturing product domestically.
New Balance is based in Boston and is continuing to grow. It even has plans of opening a sixth factory in Massachusetts and Maine. The Lawrence, Massachusetts site of New Balance is the flagship factory out of the five factories. The finished sneaker starts off as raw materials from synthetics to rubber to leather.
The process for New Balance kicks off with leather and numerical control cutting machine from Comelz – an Italian manufacturer. Three main production-lines that are all working on identical products run on a daily basis in the Lawrence factory. The classic 990v5 have filled the production lines in different sizes and colors recently. The factory requires flats full of pigskin hide for starting the 990v5 process. That is where the NC cutter proves to be beneficial. Each piece of hide enters the factory pre-dyed. Each hide is individually inspected from a worker for highlighting its defects and high-quality areas.
The machine then studies the marks that have been placed by the worker and utilizes an algorithm for determining the best cutting pattern on each hide for eliminating the imperfections while maximizing the dimensions from the highest quality areas of the hide. Manny Gomes, the manufacturing supervisor, said, ‘The cutter does an assessment on the hide and then tells the machine how to cut it. It will automatically populate the points the workers circled as issues and match it with the sizes needed. This is huge for us.’ The system utilizes a total of ten cameras with a small angle of view for digitizing the work area in collaboration with three lasers that deliver optimal viewing projection on the leather.
The New Balance relies on a conventional hydraulic synthetic cutter for the non-leather areas of the show. This helps in standardizing the process and cutting more than one sheet at a time. Once all of the material has been cut and portioned on the basis of size, it is moved to the pre-fit section of the factory. In the case of the 990v5, this implies that 32 pieces make their way to the assembly progression. It is part of the 55-step process wherein the pre-fit step-by-step incorporates all of the bells and whistles to the leather and synthetic materials including foxing, saddles, and heat transfers. Most of the pieces are computer-stitched.
Once the still-flat upper has received the required embellishments, the New Balance ‘N’ logo is added using anywhere between 70 to 102 stitches based upon the size. Afterward, the shoe makes its way to the closing section of the production. This is where the upper is affixed to the tongue, collar lining, and foam. The foxing – the area that joins the outsole to the upper – needs to be prepped. Gomes says, ‘This is a highly skilled operation that is critical. If it is not correct, it is crooked.’
The shoe then makes its way to the assembly with its shape starting to resemble that of a shoe somewhat. It gets wrapped around the last – a mechanical form of hardened plastic that mimics a foot. Gomes says, ‘Everything is going to start to take the shape of the last. You pull and stretch the material over the last and then cement the entire bottom.’ It is then time for the outsole to be joined to the upper. The soles are sprayed with a hot-melt cement, and a flash activator is used for activating the cement. The complete shoe is then given to the sole press machine that features a bladder which pushes the sole into the upper and relies on cement for locking the two pieces together.
The last is removed after the shoe has made its pass through the sole press and is reused again. The shoe is laced, tagged, cleaned, and inspected. It is even made to go through a small metal detector for ensuring that no unwanted material is in it. Once it clears the quality control, the shoe is boxed and sent for distribution. The 55-step process is completed in three hours, starting from cutting to packing.
For the custom production line, Gomes says, ‘Every pair is very time consuming, and it takes a lot of skill to make the system, so you don’t make a mistake. There are millions of options. You can even pick the color of the eyelet. You have to be flexible enough to know different operations.’ JF Fullum, senior design director, said, ‘We have hit the trifecta of high performance, digital manufacturing, and made in the USA. It is achievable.’
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