The new textile innovation that changes how footwear is created

The new textile innovation that changes how footwear is created
The new textile innovation that changes how footwear is created

According to sportswear giant adidas, its STRUNG is the first textile technology that transforms athlete data into dynamic performance material. Every yarn in STRUNG is individually selected and data-mapped for a seamless, lightweight fit. STRUNG was created by FUTURECRAFT, adidas’ incubator for innovations and technologies designed to shape the future of sport, a platform to develop ‘what’s next’ and solving issues facing athletes, sports and the world at large. Here is the inside story of STRUNG as told by the team behind it.

By Fionn Corcoran-Tadd, Benjamin Kleiman, Ian Hennebery and Clemens Dyckmans

As is the case with many innovation journeys, it started in a basement with a small but dedicated group of the adidas Future team. The original inspiration came from architecture and some interesting experiments where we saw robotics used in a creative way to build fibre structures. But it was clear from the start that there was no script. With other technologies, there are other people doing similar things, but not with this. The fact that there is no real precedent means the journey is both exciting and frustrating. We’re writing the script as we go, so there’s a lot of trial and error, although our vision is always clear.

We wanted to see how we as a team could interact with robotics and athlete data in a meaningful, creative way. The process of creating and refining new STRUNG software, hardware and prototypes led to increased buy-in and more and more people joining as development became more complex. The travel restrictions that came with the pandemic brought its own challenges, but we were able to navigate some of these and maximise our efficiency due to having connected STRUNG robots on three continents. This allowed upper designs to be sent on to each machine remotely, meaning refinement work was ongoing around the clock.

This job is all about exploring and pushing boundaries – yes, you make mistakes but it’s all about learning and using them to progress. It’s important to remember that the foot is this wildly complex asymmetrical form. We are learning with every stage of development that the foot moves differently with each intervention of footwear that is placed on it. It doesn’t move and contract in uniform ways so it’s a really challenging problem to solve… how do you build a tool for such a unique system?

Initially it was really about building things by hand, making prototypes and allowing the project to evolve naturally instead of trying to rush things early on. We started to think about how we could make a machine that would do this type of thread ‘winding’ by hand, how to integrate athlete data, and how to build software to create, simulate, analyse and test STRUNG uppers. After two years of internal adidas development, we decided to accelerate this process by collaborating with long-term design partner, Kram/Weisshaar – a pioneering digital design studio.

Our material tech challenge was very clear – we wanted to make something where we could place the yarns in any direction, to go beyond what existing textile creation methods are capable of. Getting that base STRUNG textile to work and function as we want is and will continue be a challenge. STRUNG is not knitting and it’s not weaving: it hasn’t existed before.

The first-of-its-kind concept shoe was created to provide a new experience of short-distance training runs at 5m/s or faster. Two adidas runners were identified as experts in this run and provided both motion capture and ongoing feedback to support development. The upper has a lightweight cocooned feel and fit, locking the heel to prevent slip, with stiffer and stronger red threads placed at the midfoot, toe-box, and heel (where the foot needs support), and suppler yellow threads in the forefoot for flexibility. These threads blend each of those features together within the material to provide precise fit and support through the gait cycle.

The midsole is our most radical ADIDAS 4D lattice design to date – featuring a new shape to cater for forefoot strikers. The heel has been minimized to remove weight and the rubber outsole is specifically engineered to provide traction just where needed, resulting in an extremely minimalist midsole.

We’ve come a long way from hand-winding and we’re learning new things day by day as we explore the capabilities of this technology. With STRUNG, the end material is a composite so it’s complex to try and figure out where you’ll end up. It’s actually changing the way we think of creating uppers. It’s not like an object or a specific material, it’s more like a set of interrelated systems that work together to try and do something. We’re building up a library of knowledge and it will get more interesting as we aggregate data of testing and from different athletes and sports. The more we understand about how data can become design code, the more we can take that and apply it to new STRUNG textiles. It’s a continuous evolution.

Probably the most exciting thing about STRUNG is that we’re still in the early stages of developing it – the ongoing testing will be fundamental to what we do next, but more important than that is the trajectory of consumers and athletes – what do they want next and how are their needs changing?

STRUNG is a milestone that has the potential to transform the way athletes work with designers, engineers and sports scientists. The ultimate aim is for it to be a cross-category platform that serves multiple sports. We’ve started with running but that’s just the beginning. We want this to be the most data-informed textile (based on foot anatomy and athlete movement), and we’re planning to make the first shoe available late 2021/early 2022.

Technology can achieve wonderful things, but it can only achieve the right things if it’s informed by human behaviour. It is this open approach that has guided us on the STRUNG journey so far, and it is this same approach that we believe will help us on the road ahead.