Under Armour's vision for the future of manufacturing — bringing production closer to where the brand's products are sold — began taking shape Tuesday with the opening of UA Lighthouse, the company's new manufacturing and design center in Port Covington.
Dressed in white lab coats, dozens of product developers, engineers, designers and operators of cutting-edge machinery offered a glimpse of the advanced manufacturing testing and prototype development that is underway in a vast former city bus depot.
The Baltimore-based sports apparel and footwear maker is working with partner companies at Lighthouse to create a new model for manufacturing, using state-of-the-art equipment such as 3D printers that make sneakers, a full-body scanner that measures individuals for custom clothing and robotic machinery for more efficient production.
The idea is to modernize manufacturing in an apparel and shoe industry that still relies on 100-year-old technology, Under Armour officials said during Tuesday's opening. New technology will enable products to be made on a smaller scale, improving efficiency and product quality, while reducing the time it takes to create new designs and get them to consumers.
"Today, unfortunately, much of our manufacturing is done outside the U.S.," said Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, adding that the make-local-for-local model being developed at Lighthouse can help reverse that. "We'd like to reinvent the process."
Under Armour plans to use Lighthouse to develop best practices for all the brand's products, then share proven technologies and processes with partner factories both domestically and internationally. By making products locally, for instance in the U.S. for the U.S. market, in Europe for the European market and in Brazil for that market, the company hopes to spur a rebirth of domestic apparel making.
Much of the Lighthouse space is dedicated to testing apparel and footwear lines before the products go into full-scale production. Designers and developers also are coming up with new ways to make and test apparel and footwear prototypes.
The Lighthouse staff will work alongside employees of partner companies and institutions, including the University of Maryland Engineering Department, Dow Chemical Co., Huntsman, Lectra, Bemis, Epson, Desma and 3dMD.
The center should employ more than 100 Under Armour workers by the end of the year. Additional jobs are expected to be generated at partner companies as they adopt some of the technologies.
New technologies have already led to production of a new shoe. In a limited product launch in March, the company sold the Architech, billed as the world's first 3D printed mid-sole sneaker.
The space allows designers and production workers who normally have little contact to collaborate and be more innovative than in traditional settings, said Randy Harward, Under Amour's senior vice president of advanced manufacturing and materials.
"It's great that we can expand apparel manufacturing in Maryland," said Mike Galiazzo, president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland. "The use of 3D technology has allowed them to make it possible to do that."
Under Armour is using principles of what Galiazzo called "manufacturing 4.0," or the fourth wave of industrial revolution, which relies on automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies.
"It puts it in context, things we're going to see tomorrow, but we have it here today," he said.
Besides the 35,000-square-foot Lighthouse, City Garage at 101 W. Dickman Street also houses The Foundery makerspace, which provides access to industry-grade tools and training, and Main Street, a mixed-use event space with customized workspaces for entrepreneurial tenants. The project was developed by Sagamore Ventures, the early-stage investment arm of Plank Industries, Plank's private holding company.
Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen Holton, who toured the Lighthouse with other city and state officials, said she was impressed by local hiring opportunities that Lighthouse and other entrepreneurial companies in City Garage will generate as well as the technology in use.
"It's almost like they're creating a new paradigm for manufacturing," Holton said. "We don't have to go around the world. Everyone wants to buy local. ... It's an important step in creating jobs in Baltimore, which we need more than anything."
Plank said he intended City Garage to be a place for entrepreneurs to find answers as they try to build on their ideas. When he started Under Armour, he recalled driving to New York's garment district to learn how to manufacture the sweat-wicking T-shirts he envisioned.
"We don't think people should have to travel that far," he said.