Our Let’s Chat series shines the spotlight on our all-important stakeholders that form a vital part of Engine Shed. Shoemaster is one of our tenants and members, so we sat down with CTO, Ian Paris, to discuss their innovative shoe modelling software, meeting market demands in a niche sector, and that B-word.
For those that don’t know much about you, what is your role and what is your background?
I’m a Physics graduate and during my year in industry, I undertook projects to mathematically model parts of nuclear reactors. My first job involved modelling tanks for the Ministry of Defence to see how we can destroy them. I then joined Clarks in the eighties to look at modelling shoes through CADCAM systems – some people say that this was the right moral direction to take! I started as a programmer at a time when computer science was not a recognised discipline (you had to teach yourself how to programme). I then became the manager of the ShoeMaster project in Clarks. My current role is Chief Technology Officer at ShoeMaster Atom. Prior to that, I was CEO until we joined the Atom group.
What does ShoeMaster do?
We develop and sell 3D CADCAM shoe modelling software for manufacturers and brands, allowing them to produce various components in all different sizes through their factory production systems. ShoeMaster International evolved from an internal R&D department within Clarks shoes, to an independent company resulting from a management buy out. This company aimed at exploiting the CADCAM software by selling it to other shoe companies in the shoe industry.
ShoeMaster is a tool that “designers” and “shoe product-engineers” would use to create 3D virtual shoe designs and drive computer controlled machines to create the physical components to make a shoe. It’s similar to going to a shop and having kitchen designed in 3D on a computer before it is produced.
What drove you to conduct a MBO?
When I first joined, it was always envisaged that ShoeMaster could become a separate company and I fancied the chance of creating a start up. In the nineties, Clarks underwent some changes and decided to focus on their core activity of selling shoes so they divulged themselves of non-core activities. I took that opportunity and set up ShoeMaster as an independent small business.
How did you approach the purchase from the new Italian owners, ATOM?
Positively. We were a relatively small business that had been operating internationally for a significant number of years in a very niche market. A small company working on a global basis created challenges; being part of a larger group (that includes other smaller companies that supply synergies such as computer controlled machinery, advanced retail based shopping, robotics, process automation etc.) meant that we could take advantage of being part of a financially stronger group supplying other technologies that are complementary to our range of software products.
You are in quite a niche business sector, what are the current market demands?
The big drive for shoe companies is to react to continual change. For example, there have been moves to outsource production to one country then another, then some companies are now deciding to reshore manufacturing back into the original country. One of the biggest demands is to have a much bigger variety of shoe styles and to get shoes more quickly to the market. The shoe industry is truly international with design, manufacturing and sales happening in different countries with many people involved. So we need integration of the process to allow companies to get products out of a geographically diverse structure and into their markets. The change in the retail landscape with moves from high street to the web is also a big challenge. Industry 4.0 is one concept aiming to achieve smart factories with integration of process and better production control to allow brands to cope with this changing design/development landscape.
What are the current standards in last making? How have you managed to develop and utilise modern engineering methods?
The shoe last is the physical form; similar to a shoe tree and it is the form around which you build your design and product. There are generally a handful of shoe last manufacturing companies in each shoe production country. We are a last making tech enabler; almost all companies now use computer controlled machines to develop and manufacture the lasts with the reality that they now supply lasts in physical form and in the digital form of an e-last, that can be used by the shoe companies in their CAD systems. This being the starting point for our CADCAM operations, to design and engineer the shoes.
Where did the idea and vision for the ShoeMaster Innovation Centre come from?
This is an interesting one. When we joined with ATOM, the board gave us clear direction to become innovative again, taking us back to our roots, to the time when I first joined Clarks. In that day, we were at the leading edge of CADCAM technology, not just for shoes but in general, including when compared to other industries like auto production. Over the years, we’ve turned into a successful commercial business with commercial pressures, driven by sales, customers and short-term commercial projects. In addition to our commercial software team in Street, we have therefore now set up a new innovation team to look at machine learning, cloud computing, advanced CADCAM techniques, additive manufacturing, robotics and the “science of the shoe”. We don’t want to be just good commercial product, we want to be the most innovative product in CADCAM within shoemaking.
So I sought an innovation centre to work in, with a close proximity to universities so that we could collaborate with them on research. In the past, we had worked with the CAD Centre in Cambridge, with their university, with King’s College London, Imperial Collage and over time these research connections have drifted away. However, rather than re-establishing those links we decided to look closer to home, although not really knowing what was available. We decided to look at Bath and Bristol with their closeness to the universities to see what is available. We heard about Engine Shed from someone in the SETsquared Innovation Centre in Bath, which I had found through an old contact I had with someone who now worked at Bath University. I then came over to visit the Engine Shed and found it too good to be true! It ticked all of our requirements.
What is it there to do i.e. its purpose?
The purpose of our Engine Shed team is to investigate new ideas that may or may not be correct. We are really looking at the latest developments in various fields including 3D printing, cloud computing, machine learning, researching the relationship between feet and shoes (to allow shoe companies to better produce shoes to suit their customers). We’re looking at the use of robotics not just for mass production of shoes, but also for the flexible production for customised shoes at a mass-produced price. We are trying out ideas, learning from the latest thinking in academia, developing new tech and methodologies that provide systems and processes to give our customers competitive advantage in the marketplace.
How did you get to hear about Engine Shed?
As mentioned earlier, we heard through connections at University of Bath and we were looking for an innovation centre, a place that we could share with other like-minded companies.
How would you describe Engine Shed?
Engine Shed gave us a simple start up for the new team in a great location, within a great environment where a lot of things are going on. Also providing affordable rent with office space and infrastructure in the Interchange area, we easily established our presence in the technical community of Bristol. Engine Shed is like a tech community surrounded by technological “stuff”. Just by being surrounded by like-minded people, you get all sorts of opportunities.
How and why did you get involved with Engine Shed? What does it bring to you?
Location and networking, and also a positive environment which is important. There is a buzz to the place which is infectious. Engine Shed is a great base within the Bristol tech community, where it is easy to meet with people and integrate with other companies. Bristol appears to be on the crest of a wave, and we want to take our part in that. We are certainly interested in Engine Shed 2 as we grow; it’s a good location to offer us an expansion option.
Which universities have you been working with and how has Engine Shed helped you with that?
That’s been great because when we set up in Engine Shed, we started going round to universities: Bath, Bristol, UWE and BRL. Because of our location and commitment to Bristol, there is a better empathy with the universities. It’s taken a bit of time and hard work, however our innovation centre concept was only borne just over 12 months ago. We originally went to talk to various universities and departments, which took about 2-3 visits, to each department, and also required legwork in attending final year student project presentations and career fairs. What was pleasantly surprising was the real interest from the universities to have closer links to industry project work, closer to real world problems.
In our first year, we have completed two group undergraduate projects with University of Bristol, two MSc projects with University of Bath (mechanical engineering and maths) and we have plans for doing more undergraduates and masters with all establishments in 2019. Interestingly, the first maths undergraduate project we had was with the University of Bristol, which lead to the MSc project at the University of Bath and now both of these are being used in a third group undergraduate project back at the University of Bristol – true collaboration between universities!
We’ve employed a UWE robotics student on their industrial year. In addition we are starting a couple of research projects with Bristol Robotics Lab in 2019
Engine Shed helped because of the location; it’s easy for us to visit and them to come here.
What have been the successes so far?
We’ve had real success with regard to networking and getting known within those communities. Those four projects have all been successful in their own right, little pockets of research pushing us a step further forward. The universities and ourselves see the benefit and want to continue the process on a regular basis. We see this as a pipeline of talent for us as we are looking to establish a bigger centre with more employees.
When we first started, we assumed we would set up a team of employees; now we have some permanent employees, but as they move on (which is natural), we are developing a pipeline of undergraduates and master graduates who are familiar with what we are doing and who could become future employees. It’s a great way of meeting people and interviewing them which is a better recruitment process as you get to know them.
Working on university projects the students get the benefit of the knowledge of their supervisors/professors who are aware of the latest in academic research which can be added into projects: matching problems and solutions. Having people looking at a problem from outside brings different skills for a time period to enhance the parallel work of our permanent staff.
What do you hope the Innovation Centre will go on to achieve? Could this be a world-leading hub?
We are working on an international basis in an international industry and we fully hope this innovation centre/research team will be recognised as one of the major global research organisations related to tech usage in the shoe industry. The UK centre is being used as a model that ATOM, our parent company, is looking to repeat in Italy.
How important is it to work with students and academia?
Really important. 1. It allows us to change our usual approach and become the supplier of problems and give these to people that can try out something from a completely different direction. 2. It provides the talent pipeline either as transitional resource or as part of our expansion 3.We are getting the benefit of the knowledge of people on what are the latest innovations and developments in academic/theoretical research.
Engine Shed encourages collaboration between public sector bodies and academics as well as businesses – how and why is collaboration important for business?
Again, really important. Collaboration with and between universities is very important for the above reasons. It provides the opportunity to be less insular and provides a different look on the world.
How does being based in Bristol help?
We have a good proximity to the universities, we are part of the community where word-of-mouth information is picked up over a coffee and you find out about opportunities on a casual basis.
Finally, the B-word, what are you doing to navigate the uncertain trading conditions and what would be your advice?
We are operating on a global basis, so we are less affected but as an Anglo-Italian company it does cause difficulties. Regardless of where you are, whether you think we should exit without a deal or with, I would say don’t believe everything newspapers and politicians are saying at this moment in time: make up your own opinion and try to be pragmatic. I’m looking forward to the time when it is less of a political issue, certainly I hope less divisive and that we get some stability in the situation to let the commercial markets dictate a sensible solution.