German fashion footwear maker Ara has set up new production line in Portugal, focusing on a more automated approach to manufacturing to narrow the cost differential with China.

The company, which produces women's footwear and has factories and offices in six countries, called on the footwear team at Huntsman Polyurethanes to help develop a series of polyurethane-based prototypes ahead of the opening of the new production line.

The samples were created at Huntsman's footwear development centre in Belgium on the company's DESMA RGE 400 four-station roundtable and TPU casting/injection unit - a strategic equipment investment purchased in 2013.

With Ara planning to install a DESMA D522/30 AMIR direct soling injection machine at its Portuguese plant, the creation of a replica manufacturing environment enabled the footwear firm to identify and resolve any potential production issues up front - ensuring that Ara could get its new facility up and running quickly and efficiently.

Huntsman believes the initiative is indicative of a general return to footwear manufacturing across the continent.

"Europe is once again becoming an attractive footwear manufacturing location - particularly for high-end production projects," explains Alfons Tremml, commercial manager for footwear at Huntsman Polyurethanes.

"China remains the biggest shoe manufacturing country in the world - producing around 13bn pairs per year - but labour costs there have increased dramatically in recent years. Chinese wage bills are now around four times higher than they were eight years ago.

"While costs have been creeping up in China, European suppliers to the footwear industry have adopted a more automated approach to manufacturing - narrowing the cost differential between the regions.