Exclusive: Uncovering Nike's Innovation Center

How bitmaps, real-time 3-D printers and natural thermoregulation are revolutionising design

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Outside of Portland, Oregon, on Nike's 200-acre headquarter campus, past the Restricted Access doors, centred between the heavily-guarded Innovation Kitchen and the top-secret Sports Research Lab, fashioned out of an old Winnebago, is the conference room. Originally the mobile pop-up shop Nike founder Phil Knight would park outside local track meets, the Winnebago was a place to talk sportswear with up-and-coming athletes; shoes out front for the runners and beer in the back for the coaches. It now serves as the birthplace and orbital center of Nike's creative process, where athletes are brought in to talk sports and shoes behind the black glass walls that extend from the Winnebago's metal frame. 

For their newest incantation of the Nike FREE line, the FREE Hyperfeel, Nike spent years on campus testing and developing the design, bringing athletes in to work with biomechanics, physiologists and designers, eventually restructuring their production process in order to create a shoe that would meet the demands of the world’s top runners. With newly-invented custom knitting machines and 3-D printers, designers were able to bring athletes into the conference room, chat about shoes, then factor their responses into a computer program that prints a prototype out across the hall. Within a couple of hours they had a shoe to try on and test out for edits and feedback. 

Weighing less than 200 grams, the FREE Hyperfeel is a product of this tight-circuit, real-time design loop; an incredibly lightweight, flexible, form-fitting shoe that delivers protection to essential parts of the foot while allowing it to grow stronger on its own. Using spools of industrial-strength poly threads, a one-piece upper is woven together, and then bonded with a highly-responsive and flexible bed of Luna Foam. Finally, after laces and heel clips are inserted, a waffle-piston rubber sole is pressed on the bottom. 

While the technology allows for revolutionary design, this shoe also marks a huge change in manufacturing and production practices for Nike, as assembly and materials are drastically reduced through innovative mechanics. "Runners kept saying they wanted a shoe that felt like a sock," says VP of design Sean McDowell. "We stripped down the shoe into 7 components instead of the usual 40 or 50 pieces that go into making a shoe. We also cut down on product design time; now we don't have to send a sketch to China and wait a month to get back the prototype for edits."

Hyper-techno minimalism is the new key to sportswear design; clearing away unnecessary layers that impede the body's natural ability to strengthen and adapt. Dri-FIT Knit, the new sportswear apparel line being introduced this fall, utilises special drop needle techniques and seamless circular knits to create garments that naturally thermoregulate through their construction and move with the body down to the micro millimetre; almost like a second skin with advanced sweat management and gusset panels. Like process art, this intense consideration of production energy is also apparent in the aesthetics. The knitted threads that make up the new FREE Flyknit form a colour-coded topography of the foot and shoe construction so that, like an x-ray diagram or a heat-sensitive image, one is able to see each adjustment and pressure point they are utilising in the natural foot on the surface of the shoe. 

The limited edition Tier Zero versions of each shoe expound the limitless colour combinations and custom design possibilities through Nike's modern technology. Even the FREE Hyperfeel, with its sock-like shape and contrasting black and white bitmap design, looks like the product of its computer-borne origins, pulled from the ether of a circuit board and form-fitted to advance the human race. This idea of body- and performance-enhancing technology brings one’s mind to cyborgs, our future superhuman ancestors that have adapted metal and mechanics to their human advantage. There is indeed a visceral, perhaps primal or biological, reaction when first laying eyes on the FREE Hyperfeel: a subconscious but powerful need for acquisition; an opportunity to be a better specimen, a better evolutionary marker. The fitter in the survival of the fittest.

The Tier Zero 'City Pack' of the FREE Flyknit series will launch on 20 July, with a different shoe representing Rio, Shanghai, Paris, NYC, London and Tokyo.

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