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Technologies for the Manufacturing Process

Having outlined the most relevant technologies available today to support the design process, we now focus our attention on the manufacturing of the shoes. If giving a complete description of what are the possibilities and detailed functionalities of the design tools, was a complex task, summarizing in a few pages the whole range of diverse technologies that enter into the manufacturing phase is virtually impossible.

We will then rather try to outline in a very synthetic way,  how far the state of the art in the various sector is, which are the most relevant achievements of the last years and the possible evolution trends for the future. To do that, it is worth analyzing the manufacturing process phase by phase. It is certainly true that are dozens of different ways in which a shoe can be constructed (lasted with cemented sole, stitched – Blake - outsole, Good Year, Strobel, Ideal, direct injected only to mention the most known ones) and of course each different approach requires specific machines (technologies) and specifically skilled workers; yet, no matter what the details of the assembling process are, shoe manufacturing always proceeds along the three main steps of: cutting, stitching and making. At a higher level of detail, we would probably notice that stitching can be further decomposed in pre and post stitching phases, that making is one thing and finishing operations are a different matter. But for the sake of this analysis it is enough to group the most important enabling technologies in the abovementioned three classes.

One technical topic that does not follow strictly into any one of the phases we mentioned above, is the one about the internal logistic systems; we mean by that a combination of physical (conveyors, elevators, actuators of various kinds) and software components that are used to transport and dispatch the components of the shoes, at various stages of the manufacturing process, from one station to the other of a given line (within the department) and from one department to other. These systems tend to have, in shoe companies organized in a modern way, a great relevance and they largely contribute to a smooth and highly controlled flow of operations. Hence this topic deserve a specific treatment that we will try to include in the relevant part of the analysis that follows, aiming in particular to highlighting the impact of the presence of such systems to the good performance of the specific processing phase.

Information Technologies also play an ever increasing role in manufacturing operations, at all level from process control and monitoring, to production scheduling , handling of the physical and data flows (as mentioned above), integration with the company IT platform and so on; once more this issue would deserve a dedicated analysis that there is no possibility of including in these pages, As for the logistics systems, we will try to highlight the role that these technologies might play in the individual phases of the manufacturing process.

If we start with cutting state of the art means dieless (or continuous) cutting systems; this generation of machines, which first appeared in their prototype stage in the late eighties, are now mature products and they have been accepted all over the world not only as the key technology for producing prototypes and small test runs of shoes, but, more and more, as valid alternatives to the more traditional machines and equipment also for production. Stitching operations are still regarded as the most delicate and complex operations in shoe making; this aspect together with their highly labour intensive nature induced shoe companies, in particular in high labour cost countries, to look for low cost alternatives to this complex phase by outsourcing this part of the process to external companies. Technology did not really bring in, until now, relevant innovations such that to change this situation.

Summarizing in a few lines all the different forms and applications of modern technologies that are available to support making operations, is virtually impossible; we will then rather concentrate, in this section too,  on giving some comments on the leading edge technologies that are available to shoe companies to improve the efficiency of the making process. We will hence refer to  two families of technologies: dedicated NC controlled machines and robots. By dedicated NC controlled machines we refer to the current generation of fully electronic machinery that are available to perform the most important phases of the making process: toe lasting machines, heel and side lasting machines, bottom pounding ones, roughing and cementing machines, both for the bottom part of the lasted upper and for the sides. Many models from many suppliers are available nowadays; as for lasting machines (toe, heel and side), the most modern ones all feature programmable clamps and nozzles for the application of the thermoplastic cement, automatic adaptation to changes in size and models, high flexibility and programmability, together with top performance in terms of throughput (many hundreds of pairs a day) and quality.

The other technological family worth being mentioned here is robots; anthropomorphic , up to 6 degrees of freedom industrial robots have been in use for quite a number of years in footwear factories, for various tasks and in particular in manufacturing lines for injection moulded plastic outsoles (this very lean construction process lends itself nicely to be almost completely automated thanks to the usage of robots); robots are used again for roughing and cementing the bottom and the sides of the lasted upper, for spraying the silicon releasing agent in the moulds, for trimming the flesh after the injection process and for removing the finished shoe from the last. They are used both for “processing” the shoe or for “manipulating” the shoe itself from one station to the other of the manufacturing line, thus exploiting at the best their natural versatility and flexibility. It is difficult to say if in the future they will prevail on dedicated machines (we feel that to be unlikely), we rather believe they can have  a future together with the dedicated, classical shoe making machines by complementing them in some specific operations or by serving them as intelligent manipulators.

The most advanced technologies for the shoe and leather products sectors are exhibited at SIMAC - TANNING TECH
Bologna 28. - 30. October 2008


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