Under Armours Lighthouse aims to "change the paradigm"

Under Armour's Lighthouse aims to "change the paradigm"

US sportswear giant Under Armour says it wants to propel its brand into the future through a new state-of-the-art Lighthouse manufacturing innovation facility that brings new opportunities in local-for-local manufacturing and customised products. Described by the group as its "magic bullet" and barely three months old, there are already plans for a second centre – and for the launch of several contract factories next year.

Under Armour's goal is to disrupt the current apparel manufacturing model, making products better, faster, more efficiently and closer to the consumer. And the new Lighthouse centre, which opened in Baltimore, Maryland at the end of June, is the first step in revolutionising the way its products are made.

A 35,000 square-foot facility, the centre will bring product designers, technical designers and manufacturers together under one roof to collaborate on new, cutting-edge products and more efficient manufacturing processes.

Under Armour opens manufacturing innovation hub

"In the Lighthouse we work alongside partner companies, institutions, and academia to create new technology and to leverage existing ways of working," Jami Dunbar, vice president for Lighthouse Apparel, told delegates at the Fashion Forward conference hosted by technology specialist Lectra earlier this week in Bordeaux, France.

"The idea is to modernise [the] apparel and footwear [industry] that currently still relies on 100-year-old technologies. Here we're developing new technologies to make products on a smaller scale that improve both efficiency and quality, and that allow us to bring products to market faster."

Changing the dynamics

The idea is to commercialise new technologies and processes that will first be integrated into Under Armour's existing supply chain by its current partners before ultimately be rolled out in new facilities around the world.

The idea, Dunbar says, is to change the dynamics of speed to market, pricing, costing and labour, with stand-out production facilities as well as those with very different infrastructures. 

"In today's world we're talking to small starter factories, as well as factories that have been in business before manufacturing left the US, but also thinking about the suppliers we have currently within our vendor base."

Dunbar says many of these are interested in building production on a local-for-local scale, but also in investing in US manufacturing. "We have to consider lots of different ways of working, and we need to find out what that means for our industry ultimately."

Dunbar says Under Armour is now looking at where to open its first contract factories, and has "a few [locations] in mind" domestically for apparel, which are expected to launch next year. She adds: "These won't be Under Armour factories though. They will be partner factories where we stand up our current technology and our pilot lines directly in those manufacturing centres."

The sportswear firm is already planning its next Lighthouse, which will also be in Baltimore, where the company is based. While it expects to be in its current facility for around three to five years, it will likely "outgrow our space before then".

Disrupting the manufacturing model

Ultimately, Under Armour is looking to create a new model where product will be built in the same place it is sold. 

"It no longer makes sense to chase the low cost labour all over the world," Dunbar explains. "Particularly with the new emergence of automation technologies, we know re-shoring is a reality for us. Local-for-local allows us to dictate exactly where our product is made at all times, everywhere. And it means we're developing the best practices for our brand and sharing these techniques and technologies with partner factories both domestically and internationally."

In particular, it should help simplify existing process of "going back and forth with our Asia suppliers" that currently takes around six months to reach the end product. 

Changing that paradigm has already enabled the brand to integrate R&D into its manufacturing and product development processes, enabling technical design teams to build product through virtual technologies including colour, materials and prototyping. Now total development time is around 3-6 months. 

"Next we can take the digital thread and we can flow that into manufacturing," Dunbar explains. "And what that allows us to do is build on-demand colour, on-demand print, on-demand collections, and that leads us right to mass customisation opportunities. So by opening up new areas of focus and new locations, we're able to overcome those traditional barriers and better understand the demands of our local consumer."

Partnering with technology specialists such as Lectra is moving it closer to its goals. The Lighthouse features Lectra's Brio fabric spreader and Vector fabric cutting machine, whose remote monitoring feature provides enhanced visibility to the production process as well as optimising machine up-time and production.

Under Armour is currently trying to identify places where it needs to "plug in new equipment" as it "ramps up" production. 

"Footwear is an area [where] we would like to bring in some Lectra equipment, but we'd also like to look at smaller models of cutting equipment so we can start to create smaller, more agile lines. We also plan to collaborate on costing models; really the end-to-end process is what we're interested in."

Pushing the boundaries

Dunbar says the Lighthouse provides the physical space and the tools to "push the boundaries" of what is possible in apparel and footwear innovation. It helps the brand "work smarter" by reducing waste and building more intelligent design into products. It is also a proving ground for full scale production. 

The space is set out into several areas of focus including a makers' space for initial design conception, a virtualisation research lab housing a state-of-the-art body scanner, and a 3D printing and rapid prototyping lab. Beyond that is a 'subtractive manufacturing area' where designers can work with a suite of advanced manufacturing tools that "take their designs to the next level".

Another area Dunbar says is critical for the business is strategy and portfolio development, where a team stands up the project plans and proposals with Under Armour's partner companies, helping to validate the work being done in the Lighthouse. Process improvements and technological advancements are then transferred out to factory partners globally.

The Lighthouse of the future

While Under Armour's hopes for the Lighthouse are that it becomes a catalyst for change in the global apparel industry, and begins to function as the "control centre" for the brand, Dunbar says it will also be seen as "a hub base" that all of the company's sites rely on for best practices. 

The Lighthouse, she says, is Under Armour's "secret weapon" and "disruptive engine" right inside the brand. 

"The Lighthouse is a beacon for our brand vision, so now we're laying the foundation to deliver the right product at the right time, and we're using market intelligence so we can start to treat manufacturing as one problem. We're building the bridge for the future by aligning strategy, design, development, sales, customisation, and then we're ultimately flipping the model upside down and disrupting the way our industry works.

"By capitalising on all the Lighthouse has to offer, Under Armour is revolutionising the way products are made. And we're just getting started."