Best Foot Forward, Made To Order
Veteran Shoemaker Hopes to Link Craft,
by Don Amerman
Alan Zerobnick, a Shoemaker by
trade and by heritage, is pursuing his dream of mass customization.
Hold on, you say, isn't mass
customization a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron?
Not to Mr. Zerobnick, Chief Executive
of Digitoe Computerized Footwear Systems, based in Port Townsend,
Washington. By the end of this year he hopes to launch a nationwide
network of shoe-fitting centers that will allow the average consumer
to have a shoe custom made to his foot.
Mr. Zerobnick, 50, has been making
shoes since he was 15. For the last 25 years he has been concentrating
on making customized shoes. However, in 1985 he began his search
for a way of bringing custom made footwear to the masses. He
formed Digitoe in 1990.
The mass customization bug bit
Jayne Woodward, Director of Operations at Digitoe, just last
year. At the time Ms. Woodward was Director of Product Development
for Seattle based Weaver International, which supplied footwear
to Shoe Carnival, a Midwest shoe retailing chain.
She'd heard that Mr. Zerobnick
was running 3 day "Shoe Schools" at his Port Townsend
base and decided that attending might give her a better feel
for the footwear business.
The Shoe Schools, held 3 times
a year, take the student from the raw product- a side of leather-
thru all the steps of production to the crafting of a finished
product. Each student leaves the school with a pair of shoes
he or she has helped to create.
During the course of the Shoe
School last June Ms. Woodward fell under the spell of Mr. Zerobnick's
obsession with mass customization. On the spot she quit her job
and joined Digitoe.
In His Footsteps
"Alan's passion was infectious,
and I knew I wanted to be part of what he was doing," Ms.
Woodward said. "In short, I became a 'Digitoid'."
Mr. Zerobnick's dream for the
last decade has been to find a way of marrying age old shoe making
techniques with state-of-the-art computerization to create a
whole new system for producing customized footwear.
To make sure that he was able
to give the perspective shoe buyer the best possible fit, Mr.
Zerobnick developed a 3D foot scanner.
With the scanner, a customer
could sit comfortably on a bench seat, not unlike one in a shoe
shine parlor, place his foot on the scanning window, allowing
a technician to examine and measure the foot from several critical
views. A computer captures and saves the images.
The next step is the development
of a shoe last- the solid form upon which a shoe is molded and
constructed- based on the computerized measurement data from
the foot scanner.
Once a last is made to the customers
individual specifications, any number of custom made shoes can
be manufactured, providing there were no fundamental changes
in the customers foot, which, barring medical problems, would
be most unusual for an adult.
Descended from a long line of
Shoemakers from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Russia, Mr. Zerobnick
said he always derived an immense amount of pride from handcrafting
a custom made pair of shoes for a customer. But he realized early
on that it would be infinitely more satisfying if he could bring
custom made footwear to far wider audience.
A Better Fit
"We plan to dig right in
and start working aggressively with the equipment, identifying
problems and correcting them as we go along until we have a smooth
and reliable operation."
By the end of this year, with
his staff well trained and completely comfortable with the new
system, Mr. Zerobnick said Digitoe will open fitting centers
in Seattle, L.A. and New York, with others soon to follow around
Digitoe's presence on the World
Wide Web (www.Digitoe.com) barely a month old, has already excited
a great deal of interest in customized footwear and the techniques
and equipment Mr. Zerobnick's company will be using. He has been
averaging several inquiries a week about custom made footwear
and was even invited to address a British Conference this summer
of the subject of Mass Customization.
It has become more and more difficult
for shoe buyers to find a good fitting shoe Mr. Zerobnick said.
Increasingly today, shoe manufacturers are narrowing the range
of sizes they produce. The fewer the sizes produced, the less
likely a consumer is going to be able to get a good fit, he said.
Once Digitoe has developed a
shoe last for a customer, additional shoes can be ordered from
a mail order or on-line catalog of styles, with the shoe buyer
simply specifying the style he wants along with his customer
number and last number.
The production of custom made
shoes now takes from 6 to 8 weeks. With his new techniques Mr.
Zerobnick hopes to shrink that time to couple of days and "hopefully
to matter of hours eventually."
Peter Mangione, President of
Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, a Washington
based trade association, expressed some skepticism about the
potential for custom made footwear, particularly when an individual
last is made for each customer.
The custom made market "is
a very small slice of the total market, and I wonder how costs
could be kept reasonable if an individual last must be made,"
said Mr. Mangione. "In the end, however, I think much will
depend on how well the custom made footwear manufacturer can
convince customers of the advantages of such a product."
Interest from abroad in Digitoe's
unique computerized production package has been intense, with
inquiries coming in from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa,
Taiwan and throughout Europe, Mr. Zerobnick said.
Mr. Zerobnick sees his mass customization
plan as a viable way to help build up local and regional economies.
"My main aim is to bring
work back into this country. Shoes that get purchased in Ohio
should be made in Ohio. I can't make all those shoes, but I can
provide the means and the know-how for others who would like
to get into the game," he said.