(Photo by Stephen Babcock)
With game-changing athletes wearing their stuff and commercials that send chills, Under Armour is maybe inching closer to reaching its goal: being a cutting-edge brand. But as Kevin Plank and co. look to the future, they’re betting on a bunch of white coats tinkering in a lab.
While talking about the redevelopment of Port Covington, Plank has spoken passionately about bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. through a program called local-for-local. The idea is to develop advanced manufacturing processes that can be done in U.S. cities like Baltimore, and employ local people. He’s also spoken about beating the competition to a 3D-printed shoe, which happened in March.
— Technical.ly B'more (@TechnicallyBMR) June 28, 2016
The Lighthouse, which occupies a 35,000-square-foot area in the south portion of the Port Covington innovation hub at City Garage, is the place where both of those ideas come together.
The giant doors that were thrown open to reveal the space after an intro video Tuesday (and all those folks in white coats) give the whole thing a science-fiction feel. But for Under Armour it all comes back to the very tangible margins of making shirts and shoes. The experts are working on efforts such as reducing the number of people involved in manufacturing the upper of a shoe, or modeling athletes for custom-fitted apparel through imaging.
When Under Armour’s headquarters moves from Locust Point into this neighborhood, the idea is to make The Lighthouse a place where the company’s design and manufacturing teams can come together to consider new processes. From there, the ideas would flow into Under Armour’s network of factories and the rest of the supply chain.
“It’s that place between the design and manufacturing that’s going to lead us to a place that nobody’s been able to get to in the last decade,” Kevin Haley, UA’s president of product and innovation, said at Tuesday’s opening ceremony.
To lay the groundwork for the development of these processes, Under Armour brought in local partners like 3dMD and the University of Maryland’s Engineering Department, as well as big companies like Dow Chemical (now DowDuPont), Bemis, Epson, Lectra and Desma.
Here are the four areas of production where the company is focusing:
Using body scanning, the company wants to speed up the process of custom-made apparel, and get more specific about the specifications for its athletes.
NFL wide receiver Torrey Smith provided a look at the 54-camera body scanner. By using the scans and virtual designs, the company has to visit the athletes fewer times, and can also monitor changes to their body and get more exact about specifications.
The Lighthouse is equipped with fabrication and machining tools to create models of new UA goods. They’re equipped for subtractive and additive manufacturing. A five-axis machining center was especially impressive.
The Lighthouse is about changing existing methods as well as creating new products. The company will look to reconsider production methods for an individual product. For instance, one area is producing sew-free garments.
The main areas the company wants to see change are in speed, quality and cost. With robots and advanced sewing equipment, the company wants to reduce the number of people required to assemble a product.
This is where the new processes will be tested.
When considering the scale necessary for a massive company like Under Armour, this area will evaluate how the new processes will look on the line. For instance, Under Armour got attention for taking inspiration from bras in designing its Speedform shoes. But the line also represented a step forward in manufacturing efficiency, with each shoe consisting of about 13 pieces. The industry average is 55.
There’s also an area behind a red curtain, but it’s top secret.