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Robots Taking Over The Apparel Production

Robots Taking Over The Apparel Production

First big scale shoe robot factory unveiled: Adidas will use machines to make shoes in Germany instead of humans in Asia


Adidas, the German maker of sportswear, has announced it will start marketing its first series of shoes manufactured by robots in Germany from 2017. More than 20 years after Adidas ceased production activities in Germany and moved them to Asia, Adidas unveiled the group’s new prototype “Speedfactory” in Germany. As of this year, the factory will begin large-scale production. What’s more, Adidas will also open a second Speedfactory in the U.S. in 2017, followed by more in Western Europe. According to the company, the German and American plants will in the “mid-term” each scale up to producing half a million pair of shoes per year.

Does this pose a threat to Adidas’s traditional manufacturing base in China, Indonesia and Vietnam? After all, labor in the region is becoming less cheap these days, and manufacturers are increasingly turning to robots. The current model in the apparel industry is very much based on sourcing products from countries where consumers are typically not based. In the longer term Adidas could even produce the shirts of Germany’s national football team in its home country. The shoes made in Germany would sell at a similar price to those produced in Asia, where Adidas employs around one million workers. Arch-rival Nike is also developing its robot-operated factory.

This development in the shoe area is just the beginning and will be leveraged to the apparel industry as well. Put aside for a moment how moving jobs back to a country with high costs gives companies an incentive to automate. There’s a bigger issue: After displacing western manufacturing workers, robots are poised to do the same in developing economies, too. It will be hard to re-shore jobs that no longer exist. It took 50 years for the world to install the first million industrial robots. The next million will take only eight. Importantly, much of the recent growth happened in particular in China, which has an aging population and where wages have risen.

A Kingdom of Robots

China is installing more industrial robots than any other country in the world:

WCI - International Federation of Robotics

In some respects that’s a good thing, of course. Working on a production line is monotonous, and sometimes dangerous. However, building a large manufacturing sector has traditionally been the path emerging economies have taken to raise living standards. Now, robots and other types of automation are a threat to that development model. The United Nations warned two-third of jobs in developing countries are at risk. Add to this the impact of digitalization and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Many of the jobs done in developing countries can be automated:

WCI - The World Bank

Room for Growth – in China

China has a low concentration of robots relative to the size of its industrial workforce:

WCI - IFR - multipurpose industrial robots

Why might it happen?

Back when the western middle class flourished after World War II, factory automation was expensive. Robots were limited to only a few sectors – mainly the auto industry – and those automatons weren’t that sophisticated. Wages rose thanks to improved productivity, but workers weren’t completely made redundant by the machines. Poorer countries in Asia or Africa probably won’t be that lucky. Today’s robots are far more capable, are being deployed in a wider range of industries, and are cheaper too. That leaves less room for wages to rise before humans are priced out of the labor market. More low-cost automation also means manufacturing can be re-shored to developed economies.

Cost of an Industrial Robot: €/$ 5 an hour


German robot maker Kuka, acquired last year by China’s Midea, estimates a typical industrial robot costs about 5 euros an hour. Manufacturers spend 50 euros an hour to employ someone in Germany and about 10 euros an hour in China. Rather than seek out an even cheaper source of labor elsewhere – in another emerging Asian economy, say – Chinese manufacturers are choosing to install more robots, especially for more complex tasks. China isn’t getting rid of the work, just the workers.

If robots are the future of work, where do humans fit in?

That could be one reason manufacturing employment has already peaked in many emerging economies, and it’s been happening at a quite a low percentage of total employment and at an earlier stage of economic development. Taken together, it’s possible robots end up exacerbating inequality in low income countries. We’ll have to deal with the consequences: few manufacturing jobs are coming back to western countries and not many will be created elsewhere.


Source: Robots Take Over – The Apparel Production | Susanna Koelblin | Pulse | LinkedIn

About Susan Mckenzie

Susan has been providing administration and consultation services on various businesses for several years. She graduated from Western Washington University with a bachelor degree in International Business. She is now a Vice-President, Global Administration at World Certification Institute - WCI. She has a passion for learning and personal / professional development. Love doing yoga to keep fit and stay healthy.


  1. I guess the principle long term impact will be, with less humans employed, natural birth control will impact on global population numbers? Less human jobs will mean less ways to support a family. This might mean the salvation of our overburdened planetary resources and our crushing effects on the natural world. Thinking even more left field…if there are less humans to make products for, will the robots one day run short of customers? Imagine being the HR guy (or robot?) having to make 1000 robots redundant…how would they respond during consultation interviews? It’s all getting a little 2029 here and the truth is, there is no precedent for what is to become of us in the next 100 years? Technology uber alles…scary or wonderful?

  2. You cannot have a large market for very expensive manufactured goods in an economy in which you have high unemployment and low wages. Unless the displaced factory workers are given other opportunities to earn money, something is going to break. New technologies (robots and 3D printers) are going to destroy human manufacturing jobs and within a few decades domestic 3D printers (which manufacture on site) and self driving cars are going to eliminate the need for drivers to transport goods.

    There will probably be an increase in jobs for carers and in building and decorating industries and in service roles in the travel industry, but these are nearly all low paid jobs. Costs of goods and products and profits are going to have to come down if a low wage economy is going to flourish and remain in balance. Either that or you have to pay high wages so that people can afford expensive goods and services or you have to accept that there will be large groups of people living in poverty and excluded from society. When these groups get large enough, you will have social unrest. My guess is that we will end up with a low wage, low cost economy.

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