Thursday, August 10, 2006

OR Summer Market-Timberland Invention Factory

I started my adventures at OR with a visit to my NH neighbors at Timberland. New England is a longtime hotbed of footwear innovation and in fact Nike's R&D was located in Exeter, NH in the 1970's in the next town over from Timberland.

I had the opportunity to spend time with Doug Clark, VP Timberland Invention Factory. The Invention Factory (IF) for the first time had its own booth seperate from Timberland way over in the start-up and materials corner of the immense hall. Next to IF where 2 IF hatchlings: Mion the water shoe company and the just announced GoLite footwear brand, a partnership between Timberland and GoLite, the leading player in ultralight clothing and packs. The first GoLite trail runners should be available Feb. 2007.

The Timberland Invention Factory helps support existing business lines, helps launch new categories such as trail running, develops innovative systems which have broad utility such as the Precise Fit System described below, and particpates in launching new brands such as Mion and GoLite footwear.

Doug presented in wonderful detail how IF is applying Timberland's theme of purposeful innovation to specific challenges: Mion, the new GoLite trail runners, and speciality footwear for Special Forces and firefighting (more on these last 2 in another post). Underlying a close understanding of the specific purpose of each type of footwear is interaction with users and an open mind to the possiblities of purposeful design and materials innovation which answers the specific needs. Clearly, innovations coming out of solving these specifc high end needs will migrate to other lines.

For example, to create the new GoLite trail runners automotive advertising inspired a new way to look at design and constuction to lead to a shoe which adapts and protects as terrain varies. The guiding principle were those auto ads where a diamond cutter is doing delicate work in the back seat as stable as can be while car is driving over rough bumpy roads.

The innovation is to reverse the usual hard outer sole with soft midsole cushioning by creating a biomorphic sole where large lugs, while covered with hard rubber for wear, each have an inner molded "leaf spring" (see picture below). The midsole is hard the outsole is "soft" in this approach. The idea is to even out trail irregularities, provide traction on all surfaces, and create a responsive feel which reflects that trail running is not straight ahead as road running while at the same time protecting from stone bruises.

Doug explained that as trail running is often as much side to side as straight ahead ( I agree), posting for pronation as in a road shoe is not nearly as important. I am not sure I agree entirely with the pronation point, being a bit of a pronator as I find over time my neutral trail runners have a tendancy to collapse to the inside, but will have an open mind as I try the new GoLites. I likely will need to add a half support insole as I have done with my Inov-8's.

Other innovations in the GoLite trail runners:
  • an upper which has no stitching as it is molded/welded from different materials in one piece. This promises great abrasion resistance vs stitching if the molding/welding holds up.
  • the Timberland Precise Fit System (also to be rolled out to other Timberland lines) which through included forefoot insole modules allows the volume of the shoe to be modified. The innovation was to determine that length is often substituted for a foot volume problem and that in fact there are only 7 or so lengths covering the current 14 length based "sizes", if volume can be accomodated This innovation not only creates a better fit but halves the number of sizes which need to be stocked thus helping retailers (and Timberland) to reduce inventory while also helping consumers actually find their size. Conversely, inventory could be maintained but more styles and colors offered from the same number of stocked items. According to Doug, industry wide, you only have about a 67% chance of walking into a store and finding your size. Thus, each Precise Fit shoe will come stock in wide but will include a medium and narrow slip on a velcro forefoot insole module (see photo below). Timberland will need to insure that replacement insoles are easily available. I am also sure someone will license the system to also provide a pronator friendly (ie reinforced) rear portion of the insole such as the Trim Free from Shock Doctor I use in my trail shoes

GoLite Timberland Trail Runners
Precise Fit (Left) Substitute forefoot module to adjust volume

I have a pair of the new GoLite trail runners which I will trail test in an 16 mile trail race Saturday and post a more complete review I would like to see if this new entry displaces my current favorites, the Inov-8 310's.

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