New Balance's facility in Norridgewock, Maine is situated in a sleepy town that is still covered in snow while most other parts of the country are beginning to come out of the icy thaw of winter. Without the brand's commitment to domestic manufacturing at its five New England factories, most of the 4,000 residents would probably be out of a job and the economic impact would be irreversible.
But those are doomsday scenarios, and New Balance is preparing for a much brighter day for Made in America products.
As you cross the factory threshold, I expect to see Michael Scott from The Office pop up. There's a quaintness to it all; cubicles, name badges and goofy safety glasses. Photos appear on the wall that cement the family mentality and celebrate past holidays.
Venturing deeper into the subterraneous factory, I begin to hear the clicks and clacks of activity before finally laying eyes on the workers who make it instantly clear that this is an operation which runs with the efficiency and preciseness of a military maneuver.
In only seconds, you understand there isn't a single misstep. There is no wasted motion. It's effortless - evidenced by signs at various stations that show "goal," "actual" and "deviation" - which illustrates how many pairs of shoes they want to make, how many have actually been produced before the lunch break, and finally a number that ideally should read "0."
From where I'm standing, there isn't a single deviation number where they are more than two shoes behind during the morning shift.
When I remark to Brendan Melly, Senior Director of Manufacturing at New Balance, that it has the feel of a perfect game in baseball - we are after all in Red Sox country - he smiles and admits that he likes that reference.
Melly is tall and friendly; the type of neighbor who might shovel your driveway without you asking him to. He's a former Westpoint graduate and two-tour serviceman in Afghanistan and Iraq who was drawn to New Balance's "Made in America" philosophy that rose up the chain of command thanks to his ability to rattle off data without much hesitation.
Shoes at this facility are broken down by task - usually performed in a U-shape by associates for maximum efficiency. The more technical the shoe, the more people it takes to produce a finished product. Generally speaking, it takes 350 associates just 52 seconds per task to produce upwards of 4,000 shoes by the end of the day.
10 years ago, it used to take workers eight days to make a shoe; now it takes three hours. As Melly notes, this Norridgewock operation is 3.5 times more efficient than their Asian counterparts.
In layman's terms, workers at Norridgewock make one piece at a time (single piece flow), as opposed to producing hundreds of pieces of a particular element of the shoe (batch production). Not only does this eliminate waste, but any problems can be identified almost immediately.
With an established pedigree in the running sector, New Balance is looking to further their progress in the lifestyle sector with the release of their 1978 silhouette - a product that is 2.5 years in the making and a passion project for Global Design Director for NB Lifestyle, Brad Lacey - which pushes New Balance's Made in America doctrine to new heights with 100 percent of the shoe made in roughly 190 miles between Norridgewock - where the upper is created - and in Boston where the Vibram soles are constructed.
For New Balance to classify a product as "Made in America," it must contain 70 percent of elements that were sourced/crafted domestically. For example, small things you might not think about like the tiny pellets that ultimately become parts of Vibram soles are produced in Asia.
While the name suggests that the 1978 honors the disco era, it instead harkens back to the days of New Balance's 990 silhouette which debuted in 1982 (work began in 1978) and was New Balance's first $100 USD shoe.
Despite what was perceived at the time as an exorbitant amount of money to spend on a creature comfort, New Balance got 50,000 orders in the first six months alone.
Much in the same way that the 990 made both consumers and designers rethink the manufacturing process, so too is the 1978 changing the way that shoes are made.
"We're designing for manufacturing," Lacey says.
The quest for a 100 percent "Made in America" shoe began back in 2012 with the purchase of a IMEVA machine - an other-wordly device that looks like a large dental device that spits out fully formed molds.
The goal for the IMEVA machine at the time was to begin crafting a new silhouette - the 950 - which would be issued to enlisted soldiers as part of the Berry Act which stipulates that everything a soldier gets for deployment for basic training needs to be 100 percent "Made in America."
“We purchased the IMEVA machine to provide sole making capability in the U.S. to help achieve 100% Made in the USA product for the military as well as reduce lead times and provide products to the U.S. market faster to support regional manufacturing," said Melly.
Despite adherence to the amendment for things like Kevlar, helmets, etc., there was a loophole for many years that allowed soldiers to purchase any brand of athletic footwear via a voucher program. Thus, shoes from brands like Nike and adidas - produced abroad - were often choices that soldiers would make.
In 2014, the Pentagon issued a policy that stated, “If one or more Berry Amendment-compliant shoe models corresponding to a shoe type category comes into the commercial marketplace at a cost and durability similar to that of shoes currently offered to recruits, following a wear test, services should ensure that recruits are able to purchase these shoes, and only these shoes.”
For the last several years, members of Congress - including Maine’s delegation and Senator Angus King - have pushed for the Department of Defense to adhere to a 2014 promise that essentially "if New Balance builds it, they will come."
"The benefits are widespread as closing this loophole would simultaneously provide our service members with high-quality training shoes, keep business here on American soil, boost job growth and provide a better value to American taxpayers by ensuring that U.S. taxpayer money is spent on U.S.-made goods," said U.S. Rep Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.).
“This is another win for American jobs and American manufacturers like New Balance, and I will continue to fight tooth and nail until it becomes law,” King said in a news release in June 2016. “With the passage of this provision, we are one step closer to accomplishing a major feat – one that would reward U.S. companies for creating good-paying jobs here in the U.S. and that would finally equip American troops with high-quality American-made athletic footwear."
In 2014, New Balance presented an IMEVA-made shoe, the 950v2, which adhered to policy outlined by the Berry Act and was modeled after the company’s ultra marathon shoe, the Leadville 1210.
“We wanted to make a shoe with the highest technical performance, but also light, and it’s going to be durable enough to withstand any conditions or terrain,” said New Balance spokeswoman Caitlin Campbell.
As with anything related to political maneuvering, the wheels of progress spin ever so slow. In turn, the IMEVA machine fell silent as New Balance challenged the Berry Act loophole.
"I'm definitely not a defense appropriation or procurement expert, but in the seven years I've been working on this, I've seen nothing but a bureaucratic nightmare, where middle managers at the Pentagon are making decisions that affect real jobs and real lives in America," said Matthew LeBretton, a New Balance vice president. "There's something really wrong with the system."
The New Balance 1978 is what ultimately got the IMEVA machine cranked back up - perfecting a modernized three-piece upper in suede and leather with perforated details on the toe box and N logo; a reflective underlay on the N logo; and a deconstructed leather collar.
“New Balance is committed to domestic manufacturing and has been for over 75 years -- it is our heritage and authentic to the brand. Each pair manufactured in our six factories in the US and UK is made by American and British craftsmen and women who have a strong passion for creating the most high-quality product. The premium crafted footwear that we deliver, influences and pushes the brand to strive to be authentic, high-quality and premium in everything we do,” said Shinichi Kubota, Vice President, New Balance Lifestyle and Enduring Purpose. “With the MADE 1978 we challenged ourselves with a new, innovative silhouette to offer the most relevant, modern style for our always-on-the-go consumer who appreciates the blend of function, fashion, sport and premium craftsmanship. The MADE 1978 isn’t a conventional classic, it is the first MADE silhouette designed under our evolutionary concept, ‘Style of Your Life,’ and delivers versatility for the modern style seeker.”
This year, 36 associates will churn our 840 pairs a day and 140,000 pairs annually.
The 1978 style will launch in three colorways beginning March 18 for a suggested retail price of $149.95 USD.
Although it remains to be seen if New Balance will outfit our brave men and women in uniform, the 1978 silhouette aims to become a product that should be viewed as an admirable and patriotic path forward.
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