With the recent completion of a state-of-the-art sports research lab, housed inside the same building as the corporate offices, R&D and factory, New Balance is now capable of designing, testing and manufacturing shoes entirely within its Lawrence, Mass., headquarters -- a claim few athletic shoe companies can make. And, it can share results with retailers on its products, as well as competitors' models.
With a focus on athletic shoes, the lab has the latest high-tech equipment for studying the science of an athlete's movements and a shoe's use, as well as its eventual breakdown. There is also the option to do similar studies on apparel.
While other companies like Brooks and Nike have sports research labs as well, New Balance (www.newbalance.com) said its all-in-one facility sets it apart. "Our domestic manufacturing development team can use the lab during each stage of prototype and production," said Sean Murphy, New Balance's advanced products engineering manager. Although not all its products are made in this factory -- some are partially manufactured overseas -- he said the entire line will benefit because the design and testing are still in the same building and prototypes for all shoes can be made in-house.
New Balance estimates that this streamlining should have far-reaching effects for all its products, benefiting not only the company itself, but also retailers and consumers. The company said retailers can use this as a selling point and support claims they make about New Balance product with facts generated during testing. Many dealers have already toured the site, and the company will offer tours annually.
Murphy noted, "In each of these tests, we provide the designers, developers and eventually salespeople with a clear understanding of why our products are exceeding in performance versus the competition -- and if not, why not."
When asked, for instance, about which shoe's cushioning will last longer, a salesperson has access to New Balance's testing results. The lab employs a hydraulic "smasher" which can replicate thousands of foot strikes -- equal to six to eight weeks of wear testing -- in a few days. Technicians have designed various foot molds to simulate different running styles. They can compare New Balance shoes with competitors' models to get exact numbers on which cushioning system lasts longest and provides the best support.
If this testing shows a competitor's shoe performs better, the techs will notify the design team that improvements are necessary.
"This is a huge benefit to New Balance, because they can make on-the-spot deviations to shoes based on test results," said Brock Quimby, general manager of Boulder Running Company. "And if the company is willing to admit failures as well as successes, their product will be excellent."
Another station in the lab measures the amount of pressure on a given spot on the bottom of the foot. There are 100 sensors in a computer-linked footbed that measure impact 100 times per second. This isolates pressure points so designers can tweak the product to alleviate this problem.
The lab also houses a specially designed treadmill, surrounded by multiple high-speed cameras, which shoots footage of the runner's stride, foot strike and bodily position changes -- along with detailed video of the shoe's reaction to all these pressures. It has a changeable belt, allowing for indoor testing of various surfaces, such as a rocky surface for trail shoes.
While many labs have metal "ground reaction force" plates -- a type of scale that measures the forces, duration and angles of a foot strike -- New Balance's plate is made of glass, allowing video to be shot underneath to give a ground-up angle to view foot strikes.
Debuting in fall, the 1906 is New Balance's first shoe to employ the lab throughout the entire process from planning to production, as well as its "N-ergy" heel-to-toe cushioning. "If New Balance designs great shoes by utilizing its new lab, there's no question the staff will sell more product," said Quimby.