What if shoes were built just for you? Automated plant brings craft to Ferndale

In an era where automation has meant the elimination of human jobs, a Ferndale manufacturer is using it to add local positions.

Superfeet recently opened Flowbuilt, a manufacturing facility that makes custom shoes and insoles. Flowbuilt, which will operate as a separate company but be owned by Superfeet, is making footwear based on detailed custom information. Customers are able to send in that data after using the company's FitStations, which are in retail stores across the U.S., including Fairhaven Runners & Walkers.

In the past, Superfeet used manufacturing facilities in Asia for its insoles to keep costs down. As it began entering the custom shoe manufacturing market, the employee-owned company wanted to use domestic manufacturing, said John Rauvola, president and CEO of Superfeet. Labor costs are too high for the company to build a traditional shoe manufacturing facility, so the company invested in automation.

The result is a Whatcom County facility that is initially employing 10 people and add more as production rises, potentially up to 50. With the new technology, the 10 Whatcom County employees are producing shoes equal to 140 workers in China using older manufacturing methods, said Dave Howard, chief operating officer at Superfeet.

When the current equipment is at capacity, the company can produce 600,000 pairs of shoes a year, according to Howard. At maximum capacity, with the building full of equipment, Flowbuilt will be able to make 1.8 million pairs of shoes annually.

"The only way to stay cost-competitive is automation," Howard said.

Rauvola added that automation has become a dirty word, but what Superfeet has tried to do is put people in jobs that aren't as repetitively demanding. Jobs at Flowbuilt revolve around monitoring and operating the machines. This way, the quality of life of the employee improves, he said.

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John Rauvola, CEO of Superfeet Worldwide Inc. and Flowbuilt Manufacturing, inside the Flowbuilt manufacturing facility on Friday, May 25, 2018, in Ferndale, Wash. The company has entered the custom shoe manufacturing market. Evan Abell

One aspect of the automation is through 3D printing. Flowbuilt has worked with Hewlett Packard to create the technology for the custom molds for the shoes. The company also has a machine that can work on 15 different styles of shoes at the same time.

The speed at which these shoes can be made and that they are not slowed by shipping from Asia means Flowbuilt can adjust quickly when bringing something to market, Howard said.

Superfeet and Flowbuilt are going up against longstanding market forces when it comes to shoes. For decades, measuring has been determined by an archaic piece of metal you stand on, Rauvola said. With the FitStations, Flowbuilt measures how a foot is naturally positioned and builds the shoe to fit.

Custom shoes will still be generally more expensive and it could take some time to get customers to regularly go that route instead of off-the-rack. The company is getting a boost from name brands, however. Earlier this year it announced a partnership with the Brooks Running Company. Flowbuilt and Superfeet are also working on custom recovery sandals and its first lines of regular shoes.

With so many people experiencing foot pain at different stages of life, Rauvola said they believe the market is there.

"That's where the customization comes in," Rauvola said.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz
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