"My passion is I love blowing people's minds. I love people saying, 'Wow, I never thought that was possible.'" said Under Armour (NYSE:UAA) CEO Kevin Plank during a media event outside a converted garage in Baltimore on June 28. The garage, which from the outside looks like a small warehouse or standard offices, is anything but standard inside. "Lighthouse," as Under Armour calls it, is the 35,000-square-foot center where designers, engineers, and manufacturing visionaries can bring their ideas to life in a fraction of the time and cost of standard manufacturing practices, and with more tools to make those ideas truly innovative.
As Plank puts it, "The UA Lighthouse will serve as a beacon to make product better, faster, and more efficiently, ultimately solving real problems for athletes and making them better around the world."
Inside the "Lighthouse"
The facility is filled with futuristic-looking machinery. Most workers wear white lab coats, and some wear Under Armour shoes that are not yet to market. The space is set up with various sections, each with unique tools such as 3D printers. There are four areas of focus at Lighthouse:
- 3D design and body scanning: The machines scan an athlete's body to give exact size and fit, to see fluctuations by season. This allows for the design of custom footwear and apparel while reducing waste in the development process.
- 3D printing and rapid prototyping: These 3D printers range from the simple to the extravagant and can turn an idea into a tangible product in far less time than it would take to make the prototype otherwise.
- Apparel and footwear prototyping: These tools allow for testing and improving ideas "beyond the traditional cut-and-make methods."
- Apparel and footwear pilot lines: Different ideas can be tested in a full-scale production environment to see how viable they are before bringing them to market.
Partners of the center include The Dow Chemical Company, Epson, and many more. It also features a space called "The Foundry" for local entrepreneurs to set up shop and have a place to learn, build, and innovate.
Breaking 100 years of innovation block
"In our industry, in apparel and footwear, we make a shirt and shoe the exact same way we did 100 years ago," Plank said. "We find that to be insulting, and we challenge other companies in our industry that call themselves innovative." Plank said that Lighthouse is the "tip of the spear" of innovation in an industry that needs to catch up.
The current manufacturing process sometimes takes more than 140 people touching a single shoe to get it to market. Plank believes Under Armour can reduce manufacturing costs and reduce human touches to save time and money, while ensuring higher quality by reducing chances for error with fewer parts. He also envisions this as a way to bring more manufacturing jobs to the U.S. and to begin manufacturing products locally in each market around the world.
Local for local
The opening ceremony included a speech from the Maryland lieutenant governor and was attended by other government officials, such as members of Congress and a senior policy advisor for the White House. It's all happening because of "jobs, jobs, jobs!" as Plank put it. He laid out plans for tens of thousands of new manufacturing jobs in the United States but said it all has to start with new innovation in manufacturing and the right systems set up to make it competitive.
Lighthouse will serve as a foundation for Under Armour's local-for-local vision, where product is to be designed for, and made in, local markets around the world. Plank talked about how, just like in the U.S., each market wants its product to be made locally. By having innovative manufacturing hubs like this in each region, local manufacturing would be possible for most countries.
The long-term investment
Investments like these don't come cheap. A single 3D printer can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But Plank and his team believe that it's an investment well spent to be the leader in modern textile manufacturing. By putting in the time and cost now, they believe they will be able to reap the benefits later of lower manufacturing costs, quicker turnaround to market, better and more innovative gear, and a reason for people to shop for locally made products.
"And, ladies and gentlemen," Plank concluded, "here at Under Armour we are truly, truly just getting started."