Sneakers and quality

Of course, I am going to talk about Zion Williamson’s accident. I don’t want to risk a copyright issue, so pls take a second to look up some pictures and let’s talk about this.

What could have happened? Before I answer that questions – and please note: it will be only an educated guess, but I assume a pretty close one – we should understand the structure of the modern athletic footwear. The footwear comes with 3 parts usually: an insole, where the whole process starts, an upper and an outsole. The way the factory assembles these, is called “construction”. We have several: over 300 different ways. We choose the technology according the function – there are streetwear categories and there are special ones, like firefighters, astronauts, etc. Obviously a wrong choice means signing up for a tragedy in many cases.

One other thing to understand is: what happens with the footwear during a normal walk, running or other, special training/competition activities? Let’s start with walking: at normal speed, every single step, we hit the ground with 2.5-3 times of our bodyweight. That is insane if you think about it – a normal 200 pound person might just smash the heel with 600 pounds? Yeah… Now running is exponentially more. There are long formulas to calculate, based on speed, weight, length of the step etc.. The really extreme thing to do – start the body weight one direction, then turn in a fraction of a second and move to another direction, in this situation we add a mentionable amount of twisting energy to the extremely high impact on the sole.

We see a certain trend in athletic shoes for many years now. Function and fashion are walking hand in hand, but one of them kind of dragging the other a bit more aggressively – unfortunately fashion. Making a perfect basketball shoe is clearly not enough, you have to do it in the next season, then again, again. The pressure is on to create something marketable, yet functional. One of the highly overrated “requirement” is unfortunately weight as it sounds really amazing in the ads, that your shoe will weight only 6 oz, instead of that old 7.2? This point one direction – thinner, more lightweight and less durable materials, like it or not. The soles are practically made from some marshmallow-y rubber foam, the insole is gone, the assembly is a technology “strobel” as this way we can even save the lasting allowance and the assembly is force lasted, since that is the cheapest, fastest way. (A strobel stitch is close to a “blanket stitch” – if the thread breaks, it might break the whole seam easily. On the sunny side the machine use only one thread, so there is no chance that the bobbin will run out – sorry if it was too technical).

Now let’s get back to our topic. What happened to Mr. Williamson’s shoe? Well, it practically exploded as this young, very talented athlete made quick move with his 280+ pounds. This gave an amount of stress to the footwear which was just too much. The shoe is as strong as the weakest part – in this case, I would say that was the stitching around the upper, the strobel stitch. Normally we talk about 5 mm allowance around the edges and – here is the real problem – that edge is some kind of knit, so not the sturdiest material. Who knows – maybe one layer was slipping off from the stitch? It happens all the time when you sew to layers together.. Of course I would be a lot better informed after I saw the actual shoe, but based on the pictures, that is the only way I can imagine.

People made fun of Nike, creating memes, gloating jokes… in the same time all the competition switched to panic mode and start to revise the shoes they gave to athletes. A PR catastrophe, no question about it, shares dropped right away, it will takes a long time to forget.

Here is something though, what we need to notice: it could have happened with any brands. It is not a NIKE specific construction, materials are pretty similar, people make mistakes everywhere – this accident really doesn’t mean a lot for one certain brand.

What can we learn about this? Well…

  1. test the product better. Not only at the end, but every single step
  2. improve constructions
  3. Use better materials. Don’t worry about a few extra grams, if that shoe is not for running marathon – 100 g extra means 1% longer time, not much to worry on the basketball game.
  4. and most importantly: use footwear technical experts, who don’t just have “decades in the field”, and industrial design degree or a shoe designer, but an actual footwear technical education. It makes a big difference.

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