Adidas shoes could soon be made by ROBOTS: Firm is working on a prototype stitching machine for its Berlin stores
In an attempt to bring the manufacturing back to the firm's home country of Germany, the shoe maker is working on prototype robots that can do the stitching in store.
This would speed up delivery and slash freight costs, and these savings could be given back to customers thanks to what some are calling a 'fourth industrial revolution'.
The project is part of a broader drive by Adidas to catch up with Nike.
Its rival has extended its lead as the world's biggest sportswear firm in recent years with innovative products such as its 'Flyknit' shoes made out of machine-knitted fibre.
'We will bring production back to where the main markets are,' Adidas chief executive Herbert Hainer said in March. 'We will be the leader and the first mover there
Adidas hopes to be able to produce a custom-made running shoe from scratch in a store in Berlin by next year, using a stitching machine and a foamer to make the sole.
Nike is also investing heavily in new manufacturing methods but it has not yet put a date on when it expects that to result in more US-based production.
Key to moving footwear manufacturing closer to Western markets are technologies which cut the need for workers to piece together shoes.
A machine can now 'knit' an upper like a sock, robots can already complete more of the final assembly of the shoe, while 3-D printing could soon allow the production of a customised sole.
That could threaten millions of jobs in the footwear industry in countries like China, Brazil and Vietnam, but potentially create new positions elsewhere.
Robots, now used mainly in auto production, could soon cut labour costs by 18 per cent or more by 2025 in other sectors, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) predicts.
The new technology is being closely guarded.
Photographers were not invited to an investor presentation at the Adidas innovation centre, where it demonstrated a robot that could stick its trademark three stripes to a running shoe.
Today, Asia produces 87 per cent of all footwear, with China by far the biggest manufacturer, followed by India, Brazil and Vietnam, according to APICCAPS, the association of Portuguese footwear manufacturers that compiles global industry figures.
Nike and Adidas each rely on more than 1 million workers in contract factories worldwide to make their shoes.
While the need for speed is one motivating factor, rising wage costs, particularly in China, are also driving the shift.