The theme for the 20th UITIC Congress, held once again in Porto, will centre on ‘From fashion to factory: A new technological age’, and will reflect on the constant technological changes that are impacting the global footwear industry today.

Established in 1972 with the first Congress in Evian, France, UITIC covers the latest technical issues impacting the industry and highlights topics such as automatic sewing, computerised management, new materials, quality, training and design.

Outstanding growth

The Portuguese footwear industry, with a total of nearly 1,500 companies, is highly focused on the international markets – it exports more than 95% of its production – so it makes sense to have the Congress return to Porto.

In 2016, Portugal exported 81 million pairs of shoes to 152 countries across five continents, with a total value of €1.9 billion. Last year was also the seventh consecutive year of growth in sales to foreign markets. In this short period, the Portuguese footwear industry has presented an outstanding growth dynamic, increasing its exports revenue by roughly 50%.

Over the years, the Portuguese footwear industry has undergone rapid and intensive transformation. Footwear companies braced the challenge to modernise their facilities and production methods, also investing in the less tangible aspects that gave them a competitive edge. These days, Portuguese companies are known worldwide not only for the quality of their footwear, but also for the excellence of their service, their ability to deliver small series, and their quick responses to market needs and requirements. Moreover, roughly 90% of the Portuguese shoe industry lies within a 50km radius of Porto, and the city itself acts as a centre point for the footwear cluster.

Leather International talks to Leandro de Melo, general manager of Portuguese Footwear Technological Centre and co-organiser of UITIC Congress to learn more about how modern digital technology is transforming the industry.

What does the increase in abstracts received during the call for papers indicate in terms of the expected success of the event, and what does it say about the current industry climate to further develop footwear manufacturing internationally?

Leandro de Melo: In my view, the high number of abstracts received – which represent all of the continents – can be understood as a sign of the vitality of the footwear industry and of this event in particular. Not only did many companies apply for presentations at the Congress, but also numerous universities and technology centres. This is the natural consequence of the existence of an important community looking for new solutions for the future of the footwear business, and it means this is spread along the entire value chain: from the first stages of designing and developing collections, passing through the development of new materials and technologies for production, and ending at the distribution and retail phases.

What will be unique about this Congress, and what do you think the additional visits to the factories will inspire or reveal to those who attend?

Some topics will be addressed for the first time in a footwear conference of this kind, such as virtual reality and augmented reality, the production of footwear without stitching operations and the production of comfortable footwear without assembly operations. Robotics and intelligent automation will also be the subject of several technical presentations. But the uniqueness of the 20th UITIC Congress won’t be limited to its in-room sessions and presentations, but will be proved by its extensive programme of visits to footwear factories.

The Portuguese industry is made up of small and medium-sized companies that are very flexible and completely focused on making the best possible use of the available technologies. The various scheduled visits will allow Congress attendees to observe the good practices and the appliances of the technologies in use at one of the most advanced footwear industries in the world.

How will this Congress differ from Chennai in 2016, and how has the industry changed since then?

The UITIC Congresses have a line of continuity and a concern to present what is most relevant in the footwear business in terms of materials, products, processes, technologies and business models. The expectation is that the forecasts and trends presented and discussed in the Congress are strengthened in the following edition. We believe that the 2018 UITIC Congress will demonstrate new advances in intelligent production based on automation and robotics, reinforcement of ICT, use of virtual-reality and augmented-reality technologies, and demonstrations of new polymer materials.

At the same time, other relevant and complementary topics will be discussed that will focus on exponential technologies and emerging business models; the state of the worldwide footwear industry; exploring emerging design and development technologies with global footwear brands; and the integration of fashion trends in the product development stages.

What technologies are particularly exciting that will be highlighted at this Congress? How are robotics helping efficiencies across footwear manufacturing, but still maintaining a strong enough human component to stimulate retention, loyalty and skill development?

Footwear is undoubtedly a peoplecentred sector. Fashion and design content play an important role and human skills are the base for it. Passion is fundamental for the success of a footwear business. In fact, if you ask people from the footwear industry about their experience, you will find many stories of decades of dedication to this industry and people will talk about it with strong feelings. People who join footwear tend to stay; they do not leave easily.

On the other side, technologies should be used whenever they prove to be beneficial to the processes. New technologies for production, including robotics and automation; augmented reality for marketing, images or communication; and the ICT technologies for ecommerce will certainly be highlighted during this edition of the UITIC Congress.

What other advancements in manufacturing, in terms of computing and chemistry, are going to be discussed?

The footwear industry is increasingly linked with sustainability, eco-design, environment, comfort, safety and biodegradability. These key aspects, related to the development of new materials that are non-toxic and free of dangerous chemical substances, result from an increased awareness about the impact of our activities.

The 20th edition: show highlights

In a joint press conference held in Hong Kong during APLF, the UITIC executive committee, APICCAPS and CTCP announced the first speakers of the 20th UITIC Congress.

This edition of the congress will be the first major footwear conference of its kind taking place since the adoption of industry 4.0 principles. Flexibility, digital technologies, customisation and the management of the changing relationship between brands and the final consumer are key industry 4.0 areas.

In this context, Portuguese footwear manufacturer AMF will deliver a muchawaited presentation focused on shoes created without stitching and with no lasting processes. This new technology allows the production of shoes using traditional materials in the shoe industry such as leather without the need to incorporate many of the standard stages that have traditionally characterised the production of shoes.

The UITIC Congress will be the perfect opportunity for visitors to gain knowledge and see first-hand the process developed by AMF, which uses only one injection machine unlike many other standard production methods.

In an environment where disruption is the norm rather than the exception, businesses must have the ability and the skills to turn changes into opportunities before their competitors do. New technologies and new methods appear almost every day and it is key to be the first to understand how these can be applied to processes in order to drive better performances.

Deloitte’s Center for the Edge fully understands this. The special service conducts original research across industries, and develops substantive perspectives for new corporate growth to help senior executives and key leaders to make sense of – and profit from – emerging opportunities on the edges of business and technology.

Maarten Oonk from the Deloitte’s Center for the Edge will be in Porto to give participants a better understanding of the fundamental changes shaping the industry, especially those related to exponential technologies and how these can contribute to the development of emerging business models.