New steps in shoe manufacturing: How Henkel drives the industry’s automation in Vietnam
Vietnam is the global exporter of branded footwear. Manufacturers there rely on Henkel technology, especially for high-end sneakers. The company enables the automation and simplification of their complex production processes with new adhesive solutions and thereby helps them increase their productivity and quality.
First the feet would be measured, their shape outlined, and then a pair would be “built” by hand using individual strips of material: well into the 19th century, shoes were entirely custom-made. Only with the rise of industrialization did it eventually become possible for people to buy them in standard sizes from a shop. Since that time, the global market has grown steadily.
Today, the most in-demand designs are high-end sports shoes, because they are no longer confined to the realm of the gym or the daily jog. Stylish sneakers have now become acceptable to wear in everyday life, to the office, and even with evening gowns and suits. These models are increasingly made in Vietnam. Alongside electronics, footwear is a top industry in the country’s national economy and the southeast Asian nation has become the biggest global exporter of brand-name sneakers.
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For premium sports shoes in particular, which now adapt ever more flexibly to the wearer’s ranges of movement, Henkel in Vietnam is a leading supplier of high-performance adhesives. The company has been operating in Vietnam since 1999 and works together with all major brands there. Henkel doesn’t just provide them with the technology and materials they need for their manufacturing, but also develops solutions tailored to the challenges faced by the industry. For example, reactive hotmelt adhesives are making it possible to reduce the number of production steps, and powerful water-based products are gradually replacing solvent-based formulas. Novel adhesive technologies allow manufacturers to flexibly use a variety of different materials to make new products, such as ultra-lightweight shoes. In addition to offering innovative adhesive solutions, Henkel also supports its customers with digital production technologies that enable them to streamline their processes, reduce waste and minimize error rates – in other words, to optimize their production. This is particularly important for an industry that currently faces major challenges.
A growth sector facing big challenges
To this day, despite the possibilities of machine production, many things are still done by hand. This is because shoes are complex objects compared to other mass-made products. There are a vast number of designs and each model is manufactured in different sizes, for the right and left foot respectively. A shoe is made up of many components and materials that need to be sewn, glued and joined together. “The inside and leg of the shoe are elaborate to make, following very different processes. It takes a mid-sole and an outsole, as well as reinforcements and padding to ensure that the finished shoe provides optimal support to its active wearer,” says Nam Luong, Head of Marketing at Henkel in Vietnam. Automation of a production process that has such widely varying parameters is both technically demanding and financially challenging. At the same time, it is becoming more and more difficult for manufacturers to find workers for manual production because the cost of labour is rising in many Asian countries. “We are increasingly focusing on ways to enable our customers automate and simplify their production lines by providing high-impact solutions” says Rajat Agarwal, Head of Global Lifestyle adhesives business at Henkel.
A showroom where customers try out automated adhesive solutions
To figure out exactly how technology can help more sustainable products to be manufactured more efficiently and production steps to be automated intelligently, Henkel collaborates with partners in its Application Center in Bien Hoa. The center is situated about 30 kilometers to the east of Ho Chi Minh City and serves as a showroom for automated adhesive solutions in the shoe manufacturing industry. Henkel has been operating centers of this kind at relevant locations since 2013. The facility in Vietnam opened in 2019 and represents a clear investment in the local business. Among other things, customers there can witness robot arms spraying fine layers of adhesive onto soles and using less product to do so than would be necessary in manual production.
“By working together with our customers, we can find practical ways of adapting a given solution to their needs,” says Luong. The approach is less about making a sell than about offering comprehensive guidance. Henkel brings market players together with the right equipment manufacturers and draws on competencies from other areas of the company. In the Application Center, its partners can simulate their own applications and try out new technologies. “We perform tests here that often aren’t even possible in the large factories yet. Many manufacturers are not quite ready to invest in robotic cells,” Luong explains. Henkel offers a wide range of services and consulting at the site: from digital customer service with live video communication, all the way to an in-house shoe academy with targeted training courses for factory workers. The company’s biggest advantage over the competition, however, is its deep know-how. “Henkel is the first supplier to install a state of the art application center to speed up adoption of automation processes. This concept was leveraged by learnings in using such centers in other industries such as automotive and furniture, and this has been received postively by our customers”, says Agarwal.