The story of On is one of innovation. The very start founder Olivier Burkhard was taping sections of garden hosepipe to the bottom of an old pair of trainers to create a completely new type of cushioning. So it is not surprise that innovation is at the heart of the brand. And nowhere more so than at the On headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland where LtW Editor Simon Freeman had a chance to see the newest shoe to hit the streets – the revision of the Cloudsurfer.
In the heart – literally and metaphorically – of On’s new headquarters in Zurich, are the On labs. Hidden behind semi-transparent, orange sliding doors, the places where On creates its next products are not ever accessible to all staff in the building. This is proper secret stuff.
My guide for the day is Nils. As we arrive at the first room we will see, Nils exlains that he is a veteran of the brand, having started as employee number 30. There are now well over 1,000 people working for On. And yet despite having been with the brand for such a long time, it is clear that what we are about to see is one of the most exciting developments Nils or anyone else at On has seen.
The first room that we enter is dominated in the middle by a massive treadmill and cinema-scale screen. Cameras and sensors around the treadmill allow engineers, like Ben Lane, to measure every aspect of a runner’s form and gather huge volumes of data that will ultimately play such a crucial part in the development of new products.
The shoe that I am here to see is the new iteration of the On Cloudsurfer. This was actually the names of the first shoe On released 13 years ago. And at the time the Cloudsurfer embodied how the brand thought cushioning should work. So when On came up with a totally new way to give runners comfort and responsiveness, they decided to reuse the name that had started it all.
Data is at the heart of the new version of the Cloudsurfer. It is thanks to scientists like Ben and his colleagues, that the engineers can ‘build’ shoes virtually and use the data they have collected to engineer the CloudTec midsoles before having to commit to making an actual prototype.
Ben shows me how he is able to take data from the treadmill analysis and combine that with the properties of the materials they are proposing to use and muscle and bone, to model exactly how each shoe design will work for the runner. And of course this technology means that hundreds or even thousands of versions can be tested before a prototype needs to be made, making the whole process faster, more efficient and more sustainable. Ben and his colleagues are even able to add in data taken from observing runners on the road to make their computer simulations as accurate as possible.
At some point, the virtual shoe needs to make its way out of a computer and into real life. That is why the next stop on our tour is the ‘makers space’ where we met Tor, who is part of the team crafting physical prototypes in a dedicated space in On’s headquarters.
Tor explains that using 3D printers and sophisticated cutting machines, he is able to replicate the designs from the virtual shoes into prototypes with a process they call ‘monster making’ – building ugly-looking but totally practical shoes that can be tested before going into production.
The end result of all the computer-aided development is a shoe that is really revolutionary. The CloudTec is still present. But the process for creating it is completely new – creating gaps in the Helion foam rather than building CloudTec loops that are then applied to the bottom of the shoe. These ‘Clouds’ compress and interlock, somewhat like a row of dominos falling over, one against another. This ensures the smoothest possible transition and incredible energy return.
The final stop on our tour is to a space where the senior team at On are presented with new products. Here we met Maraike, the product manager for the Cloudsurfer. Maraike and her colleagues consider how a shoe will work for all different runners, thinking about issues such as how it will scale from smallest female size to largest male size. Maraike explained that the aim for the new Cloudsurfer was to create a product that suits the widest possible range of runners. And a shoe that considers sustainability issues in its production. In the case of the new Cloudsurfer, one example of this is the use of ‘dope dying’ which involves dying the yarn rather than the fabric, saving huge amounts of water. Maraike says that there are limitation with this dying process – certainly a limit on the range of colours available – but that On sees the compromise as being worthwhile.
At the end of the tour, I had the chance to try on a pair of the new Cloudsurfer. Knowing everything that had gone into the development of the shoe, trying them on for the first time still delivered a jolt of surprise. The ride really is remarkable. The shoes feel soft and responsive at the same time. The upper is snug and yet comfortable. The Cloudsurfer is – at least in name – a nod to the past: to the first shoe with which On announced itself to the running world and in doing so, positioned itself at the forefront of innovation. But the Cloudsurfer is also a shoe for the future – a new way for the brand to deliver comfort, performance and sustainability in a way that a huge range of runners will love.
The Cloudsurfer will be available from 23 March at on-running.com and in the best running retailers.