Material Matters: Friends With Proprietary Benefits
Sneaker brands are always flaunting their latest tech. In the cutting edge field of athletic performance, new innovations can give a competitive advantage to both the sportsperson and the brand. But for all the noise that we hear about ground-breaking sneaker developments, it can be surprising to learn how many revolutionary technologies come from elsewhere.
The technological arms race is an expensive part of the sneaker business. At the most basic level, every bit of money that brands spend on developing your fancy new running shoes has to come from somewhere – meaning the more they spend, the more you spend. Without having to create entirely new departments for research and development, brands will often go elsewhere for new materials or to learn different ways of doing things. When it comes down to it, brands like ASICS are specialists in shoes, not chemically engineering new polymers, or the properties of non-Newtonian fluids. Often it just makes more sense for a brand to seek out an expert on that kind of thing, someone who already has the best product, or for the third party to seek out the sneaker brand. Then they’ll either license the technology or just work with the product.
There are some big names in the sneaker scene you may never have heard of, but some of them are more familiar. Names such as Gore-Tex and Cordura are a couple you may know. Neither of them set out to make footwear, but what they offer is a material that nobody else can. These kinds of products are what are known as proprietary technologies – confidential concepts, processes or tools that can give them an edge, often subject to patents and copyrights.
So if New Balance want a tough synthetic fabric or a breathable waterproof membrane, then they call up Cordura or Gore-Tex for a bit of yardage. Instead of spending all that extra time and money trying to come up with something that works almost as well. Then there are some that fly under the radar – like Velcro, which many people don’t realise is actually a brand name for a type of hook and loop fastener – it’s become a genericized trademark.
One of the areas where we see a lot of this going on is plastics. Large chemical companies make up a huge part of their business with polymers and resins, and when sneaker brands want something special it can be hard to compete with big-chem. This goes way beyond a TPU lace cage on an Ultra Boost to things like the Continental branded rubber outsole and even Boost itself. Boost foam was created by BASF (although they call it Infinergy), who decided it might be good for shoes, so the German chemical giant sought out two locally based manufacturers of athletic shoes. Have you heard of PUMA’s NRGY foam? Yep, it’s the exact same thing made by the exact same company.
You’re probably also familiar with Vibram, a specialist in the manufacturing of soles, whose tunnel vision is able to allow them to come up with things like Arctic Grip – a unique compound that grips on slippery ice. Sneakers are packed full of third party proprietary tech. Nike’s LeBron II featured a midfoot shank made from Xytel plastic, a Pebax shell and a Velcro strap. New Balance’s 2016 Olympic track spikes featured a Boa closure, a similar system to a PUMA Disc.
The outside influences on your shoes don’t just stop at materials – there are all kinds of other tech going on behind the scenes. The ARAMIS motion capture technology used to create adidas’ form fitting Ultra Boost and AlphaBOUNCE is the same thing NASA uses to inspect the hulls of space shuttles. Gom, the creators of ARAMIS, are one of the leaders in 3D coordinate measuring technology – no doubt a company filled with brilliant mathematicians and engineers, but not the type of minds you’d want designing your EQT.
When it comes down to it, we’re happy that it works this way. It might appeal to the purists to know that every little bit of their shoe is unique to the brand they’re rocking, but don’t you want to know you’ve got the best of the best? There’s a time and a place for technology to dictate the way a design evolves. With a smorgasbord of third party engineers, big sneaker companies can decide what they want the shoe to do before they go out and find the person or product that can do it, rather than have their in-house tech develop into something they hadn’t imagined and have to go back to the drawing board. The resulting products are some of the most hi tech and good looking shoes out there.
So when you’re sussing out the next pair of shoes you want, have a think about it – there may just be a little bit of NASA on your foot.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section, where we take a peek behind the mesh curtain and break down the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Laceless Closures, Nike’s Tuned Air and adidas Tubular.