A Footwear Revolution Comes With a Computer

JONES & VINING INC. hopes to use computer technology to transform the way footwear is made worldwide.

"We're in the middle of a revolution," says John Hurd, president of J. V. Footwear, the subsidiary formed by the 60-year-old firm to accomplish this task.

Jones & Vining manufactures lasts, the foot-shaped forms around which shoes are built. Although most shoes for the United States market are now made overseas, Jones & Vining has survived. It supplies lasts to shoe designers - including many in New England at companies such as Reebok and Rockport.

When a design is finalized, shoemakers often want to produce the shoes in several factories. Currently, most lasts are hand-copied by artisans in each factory - one last for each size of shoe in that design. Often slight mistakes in size or shape crop up, making quality control a problem.

Enter Compu-Last, J. V. Footwear's recently introduced line of machines that can translate the complex last designs into digital computer code. This packet of data can then be put on a disk or sent across the world by telephone and reproduced in factories. This means not only greater assurance of quality, but also quicker introduction of new shoe designs.

"The vast majority of production will go to numerically controlled" systems such as Compu-Last, Mr. Hurd predicts. Since mid-1992 the company has installed 11 of its new systems, and Hurd says 25 should be in place by fall, out of a total world market of only about 400 last-making machines. Indeed, the market may be small enough for Jones & Vining to keep it to itself.

"If we're not too greedy [setting prices], ... I don't see any reason why we would have any competitor," Hurd says. He recently returned from a marketing trip to several Asian countries.

The company also envisions other products that connect shoemakers to the digital revolution.

Hurd talks of technology allowing shoemakers to gain a more sophisticated understanding of the "population of feet," to cut the cost of customized shoes, and to allow the average person to mail-order shoes without having to worry whether they will fit.

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