In our current issue of SNEAKERS, we’re bringing you a detailed feature article about the craftsmanship and story of the New Balance 1978. The new model is entirely “Made in the USA” and extremely important, because it expands on the legacy of the 990 model and introduces brand-new manufacturing technologies. New Balance invited SNEAKERS to Boston to check out the production of the 1978 in two factories in the US.
Making the New Balance 1978
New Balance Factory | Norridgewock, Maine
The manufacturing of beautiful things has always been a sacred process. But in our day and age, most products come to life behind a veil of secrecy. They are produced by someone. Somewhere. New Balance has always had a slightly different standard when it comes to the production process. For over 75 years, the Boston-based company has been committed to domestic manufacturing.
The Norridgewock factory is one of five American factories – New Balance makes four million pairs of athletic footwear in the US – and also the largest one. It’s located in Maine, a three-and-a-half hour drive from Boston in an idyllic and remote location. The factory specializes in making the 990 model, and it is also where the new 1978 is made in a new and efficient process. (You can get a closer look at the 1978 silhouette and some on-feet shots here.)
The workers are open and friendly, and it’s easy to see that they are dedicated to New Balance. No wonder they are, considering that the median tenure of the employees is 13 years – some have been there for several decades. During our exclusive factory tour, we spoke to Brendan Melly, Director of Manufacturing, about the production process of the New Balance 1978.
How many people are involved in a shoe like the 1978 from start to finish?
Traditional lines have approximately somewhere between 28 and 36 associates. Because the 1978 has an upper construction that is simpler and 15% more efficient, it’s probably six less. The same is true for the time needed to complete one. A 990 takes about 22 minutes on the whole, while a 1978 is in the range of 17 minutes.
What’s special about the shoe from a manufacturing point of view?
There’s really the simplification of the design in terms of the sheer number of components. If you take the 990, there are around 32 different components involved. The 1978 has just 9. It’s really a new chapter both in design and in efficiency.
We’ve seen the whole process from start to finish. Are there any quality checks during or after the production?
There’s someone at the end of the line that follows an inspection process to see that the shoe meets our requirements. That’s done for every single shoe that goes through every one of our domestic factory lines. And then, within the factories, there are associates who do a quality check on a population or a portion of the line to make sure that it meets the requirements. And then there’s a third check when it goes to the distribution center.
How does it compare to other factories in the same industry?
From a US factory standpoint, we are the benchmark within the industry. And within our internal factories as well, regarding quality execution in terms of customer returns.
Thank you for the tour and interview, Brendan.
Making the sole of the 1978
New Balance Factory | Boston, Massachusetts
Next up, we traveled to New Balance’s Boston factory, where the sole of the 1978 is made. It’s a Vibram EVA sole and made from an innovative compound created specifically for this model. After the sole is finished, it’s sent to the Norridgewock factory, where the upper is applied. But before then, an amazing amount of manual work and refinement is needed to complete the sole.
The fact that it’s a Vibram sole is about more than just a little co-branding on the heel. Just like New Balance has long-term relationships with their employees, they also have their steady supply base. New Balance has been working with Vibram for almost four decades and on different shoes.
The challenge of finding the right sole for the 1978 was to manufacture a new EVA material that was able to have full ground contact without an additional rubber outsole. It was also meant to have a nice feel to it. EVA outsoles are often very light, but they are also squishy. There are many qualities in a sole that are seemingly contradictory, which is why the finding the right compound is so important.
5 facts about the sole of the New Balance 1978
- The Sole is made in cooperation with Vibram, a classic sole manufacturer, often associated with classic American Sportswear but actually coming from Italy. Vibram also has production sites in Massachusetts.
- The Sole unit of the 1978 is made out of one piece and has no extra outsole that is usually needed for abrasion-resistance.
- Vibram delivers the material in the form of beads that have been developed according to the New Balance standards. The material is processed and applied by New Balance in their own factory.
- New Balance and Vibram looked at 15 parameters to create a perfect sole, including abrasion, feel, weight, compression, strength or tear.
- New Balance and Vibram speak on a weekly basis about different projects. It’s an intense and long-term relationship. The two companies have been working together for almost four decades.
This article is a shortened version. Find the full length original, plus more content from our behind-the-scenes visit at New Balance, in our print issue #34, which you can get in our store. You can also subscribe for a full year of SNEAKERS mag.