BOSTON — AT a recent shoe technology trade show in Boston, one exhibitor sighs: ``There's nothing new here, or in this industry. Coming to this show is like coming to an antique show.'' That wasn't the whole story. A new computer on display promises to pare down shoemaking time by developing prototypes in two days.
At present, the shoe industry in America is still so labor intensive that creating a pair of prototype shoes takes 28 days. The prototype will be handled by 75 different sets of hands: from designer to last maker (a last is a dummy foot over which shoe fabric is stretched and treated) to fabric cutter to sole applier to packager. To ``grade'' the shoes - make prototypes in other sizes - takes nearly the same time. After the lasts are made, the time needed to make an individual pair of shoes can vary from one day for inexpensive shoes to two weeks for the finest leather shoes.
Because shoemaking is labor intensive, 80 percent of the shoes sold in America are made in countries where labor is cheaper. Last year Americans bought 971 million pairs of shoes (women bought 520 million; men, 272 million; children, the rest), paying a total of $13.7 billion. The average hourly compensation for the 83,600 people employed in direct shoe manufacturing is $8.57 an hour. The closest competitors pay less than one third that: in Taiwan, $2.25; in Korea, $1.71.
The computerized design system, ``ShoeMaker,'' developed by Gerber Systems Technology, Inc., in South Windsor, Conn., uses a 3-dimensional computer display offers on-screen viewing of all sides of a new shoe model, as well as variations on shoe lines and colors, trims, accessories. It is also linked to a machine tool that mechanically carves a block of plastic into a last and cuts the fabric for the shoe.
While there are other computer systems similar to this already in use in America - notably Microdynamics used at U.S. Shoe in Cincinnati, Ohio - ``ShoeMaker'' has big advantages, says inventor H. Joseph Gerber.
Because the 3-D representation is so realistic, designers can sketch and modify for hours before deciding on a final style and having a last made. They can even send the computer models to terminals in department stores for buyers to see. And good news for people tired of unreliable shoe sizes: From now on, a 10B is a 10B is a 10B when the lasts are cut to computer specs rather than carved by human hands.
This precision should help solve one of the most common consumer complaints in the industry, says Cynthia Emmel, director of communications for the National Shoe Retailers Association in Columbia, Md. The industry is still relying on ``archaic modes of measurement,'' she says. Every shoe company makes shoes on its own lasts - and these vary among the 240 American shoe manufacturers.
Savings in shoemaking time not only means cheaper shoes, but more up-to-date models, says Mr. Gerber. And these more fashionable styles can be made to fit hard-to-fit feet, those ``that aren't models' feet.''
The integrated 3-D system is being used in only one factory so far, at SVIT Corporation, a state-run shoe company in Gottwaldov, Czechoslovakia. The company manufactures 60 million pairs of shoes each year. SVIT director C. Vodak, who attended the Boston show, is pleased with the system's speed and accuracy. Best of all, he says, is being able to standardize sizes to fit Czech feet, which are quite different from Nigerian feet, for example.
The complete ``ShoeMaker'' - hardware and software - costs about $150,000. GST hopes to sell the system to the thousands of shoe manufacturers around the world, and to component companies that make heels, soles, and accessories for shoes.