Tennis Industry magazine

 

Footwear: Building a Foundation

A multi-step process of conceiving, planning and testing goes into creating quality tennis footwear.

By Kent Oswald

Outside appearance may attract the eye, while the technology within can impress the mind. But for a tennis player, neither characteristic may be the most important aspect when it comes to selecting a shoe. It most likely will come down to fit and feel. In other words, comfort.

We spoke with Simon Brennis, Head’s global business manager of footwear, about current trends in shoes — including how Head’s introduction of two tennis footwear lines last year deal with comfort in different ways.

Head’s premier shoe offerings for men and women currently are split between the Nitro Pro series, a lightweight shoe that the company suggests is an ideal choice for all-court players, and the Revolt Pro series, which features a more durable outsole and stable interior, marketed as the choice for players who prefer to work along the baseline.

Brennis says Head’s construction procedure begins with feedback from consumers, retailers and its pro-tour players. The company also solicits feedback from high-level juniors who are members of the Head team. These players talk about the shoes they’re wearing, what they want in tennis footwear and what they are hearing from other players about their shoes.

From all this feedback, Head creates a “design briefing.” This outlines the general direction of new or revamped shoes and includes information about materials research, as well as results from shoe construction and manufacturing testing. Four to six prototype shoes may evolve from a design briefing, with development taking about a year, as versions and upgrades face laboratory tests as well as on-court stress tests at top tennis academies.

Styles are then developed in conjunction with other departments. Decisions are made about how to adapt the new shoes to those currently on shelves. And about a half-year prior to launch, pre-orders are gathered for the first production run.

Innovation and Improvements

Although shoes are the foundation of everyone’s game, too few players consider the thought, planning and challenges that go into creating quality footwear. Tennis consumers rarely appreciate, much less acknowledge, the complexity and increasing innovation in the manufacturing process.

For instance, seamless construction of shoes is increasing — stitching is reduced as TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) films are welded on top of other materials. Graphics are being knitted directly into fabric. And new lightweight and more breathable materials from all brands are increasing comfort and fit across the board.

“Due to new production technologies, new ways of assembling tennis shoes are now possible,” explains Brennis. “Using tennis-specific materials is one aspect of success. For example, the outsole rubber compound was one big part of our development process over the last couple of years. As more and more good players start sliding on hard courts, the rubber needs to provide the best combination of grip, hardness and outstanding abrasion resistance. After several lab tests and tests on different surfaces, we applied the new Head ‘Hybrasion+’ rubber on all our high-end performance shoes.”

Like other major manufacturers, Head also is dropping weight in its shoes by using more advanced materials. Addressing the challenge that no other athletic endeavor requires quick cuts in all directions on varying surfaces, Head added new features to improve lateral stability and overall durability — as well as increase comfort and playability right out of the box.

More Manufacturing Automation?

The future will likely see additional automation to the manufacturing process, even as current applications are resulting in more styles with one-piece knitted uppers and 3D printing on the outsoles. Because of the continuing need for manual intervention in work on protection elements and rubber outsoles, it is likely that Asia will continue to be the source of most shoe manufacturing, at least for the short-term, and until more of the processes can be automated.

Other elements that won’t change the shoe manufacturing process include the continuing interest in increasingly colorful shoes that are both lightweight and durable. With added durability, shoe brands can continue to guarantee their outsoles against wearing out for at least six months.

When Brennis talks about his own brand, he’s clear on what he believes makes Head’s shoes different.

“Head’s DNA is tennis,” he says. “Within our footwear department, we are focused 24-7 on tennis shoes only. Within the whole design and development process, we keep up with the motto: ‘Design follows function.’”

From a development process that takes them around the world, tennis shoes find their place on a retail store’s shoe wall. Then, they wait for the customer to actually try them on.

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About the Author

Kent Oswald  is a contributor to TennisNow.com, producer at the JockBookReview.com and a former editor of Tennis Week magazine.

 

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